A Brief History of the Lafayette Photographic Studio
the inspired pencil of Lafayette has limned for ages yet to
James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922.
Lafayette studio has one of the oldest histories of any photographic
business in the world.
was founded in Dublin in 1880 by James Stack Lauder, who used
the professional name of James Lafayette. James was the eldest
son of Edmund Lauder , a pioneering and successful photographer
who had opened a daguerreotype studio in Dublin in 1853. In
adopting the name 'Lafayette', James created a new image for
the family business, seeking to prosper from the cachet of a
French name: Paris was then the centre of the art world and
of avant-garde photography in particular.
Lafayette was 27 when he founded the new firm which, in its
early days, was variously
known as 'Jacques Lafayette', 'J. Lafayette' and 'Lafayette'.
In fact, he was joined in the new
venture by his three brothers, all of whom were experienced
photographers who had worked in
their father's three studios.
Carte backs from the original 'Lauder' studio
new business flourished from the start. It soon established
itself as the premier portrait studio in Ireland following commissions
from the Viceroy and leading members of the Irish aristocracy.
white building in the centre is the location of the main Lafayette
studio in Dublin
immediately James Lafayette started to attract favourable reviews
in newspapers and photographic journals. He also began to win
exhibition medals for his portraits of society beauties, actresses
and children not only in Ireland, but England, France and America.
In 1884 he was elected a member of the Photographic Society
of Great Britain. By 1885 the firm was registering some of its
best work for copyright, and had attracted the attention of
the Royal family with its best-selling portraits of Princess
Alexandra, taken to mark the Royal visit to Ireland of that
1887 James Lafayette was invited to Windsor to photograph Queen
Victoria and was granted a Royal Warrant as 'Her Majesty's Photographer
in Dublin'. This Royal Warrant, which was subsequently renewed
by King Edward VII and George V, conferred enormous prestige.
The style and title of 'Photographer Royal', which now appeared
on the studio advertising and promotional literature, proved
extremely useful in attracting new clients.
Lafayette business expanded rapidly in the 1890s. Studios were
established in Glasgow (1890), Manchester (1892) (see line drawing
below), and with the surge of business in Jubilee year (1897)
a branch was opened on London's Bond Street. Subsequently another
studio was established in Belfast (1900).
In 1898 all the Lauder family businesses were incorporated and
shares in the newly established Lafayette Ltd. were floated
on the Stock Exchange. By this point James Lafayette had left
the Dublin studio in the hands of his brother, William Harding
Lauder, and was managing the London studio. Following his commission
to photograph guests at the Duchess of Devonshire's costume
ball in 1897, James Lafayette was clearly established as the
most commercially successful portrait photographer of the day.
London was then the centre of the world stage and the Bond Street
studio photographed the most prominent people at court, in society,
the arts, the armed forces, and the professions, as well as
a stream of foreign visitors, from Japanese diplomats to African
princes. In 1898 James Lafayette was even recommended for a
knighthood in the pages of The Photogaphic News. (This honour
for photography, in fact, had to wait until 1972 with the knighthood
of Cecil Beaton.)
The prosperity of the Lafayette business in the 1890s and early
twentieth century was closely linked to the expansion of the
press. Many Lafayette photographs were published in the national
and provincial newspapers, as well as in the many new photographically
illustrated magazines made possible by advances in printing
technology. As early as 1893, for example, Lafayette's wedding
photographs of the Duke and Duchess of York at Buckingham Palace
were published in The Illustrated London News and The Gentlewoman.
some cases Lafayette seems to have made special arrangements
to supply large numbers of photographs to new magazines. Country
Life, for example, was founded in 1897. During its first year,
Lafayette provided more than 30 of the magazine's 52 weekly
frontispiece portraits. The Scots Pictorial, which was also
established that year, was supported by the Glasgow studio.
Such was the volume of press work that from 1914 to 1927 there
was a special office in Fleet Street to deal with it.
Lafayette died in Bruges in 1923, at the age of 70. He was by
far the most dynamic, entrepreneurial member of his family and,
following his death, the company went into relative decline.
A new generation of photographers, including Bertram Park, Hugh
Cecil, Paul Tanqueray, and Dorothy Wilding, was providing competition
to established commercial photographic studios such as Lafayette.
The Stock Market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression
also had a devastating effect: Lafayette operated at a loss
for most of the 1930s.
Ltd.' continued to function until 1952, although the business
was not finally wound up until 1962. The Lauder family and its
employees were thus producing photographs continuously from
1853 until 1952. They also kept a library of their most important
negatives, almost all of which were marked with the name of
the sitter and the date when the negative was made.
The back of a Lafayette carte 1897
Dublin branch of the business, which was sold off in 1951,
still survives. Until the 1990s it was run by the oldest photographer
in Ireland, a former employee and nephew of Walter Pannell,
a photographer who worked with James Lafayette. Some of the
19th-century props and photographic equipment are still in
use to this day.
the majority of negatives from the Dublin studio were destroyed
in 1951 (allegedly sold for re-use as glass panelling for green-houses).
Several hundred historic glass and nitrate negatives survive,
however, including early examples of royal photo-journalism
and portraits of famous Irishmen such as Patrick Pearse, leader
of the Easter Rising, George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats.
very important negatives from the London studio and a smaller
number from the provincial English branches survived in a London
attic. In 1972 they were moved by builders to Pinewood Studios,
where in 1988 they were rediscovered in a props store and given
to the V&A (see Sunday Times article). The Museum decided
to keep the 3,500 glass plate and celluloid negatives dating
from 1885 to c. 1937, but transferred the rest of the collection,
consisting of 30,000 - 40,000 nitrate negatives from the 1920s
to the early 1950s, to the National Portrait Gallery.
addition to these two large archives of negatives, the Earl
of Haddington holds a substantial number of uncatalogued negatives,
mostly on film, at Mellerstain, his home in Berwickshire.
are, of course, a vast number of prints of Lafayette photographs
still in existence. Large collections of Lafayette photographs
can be found in the Royal Archives, the main commercial picture
libraries and the Gernsheim Collection at the University of
Texas. There are also several smaller specialist collections.
Most negatives in the V&A and NPG collections can thus be
matched with surviving photographs in period frames and family
albums, photographs published in newspapers and magazines, postcards,
and prints sold for mass circulation.
Lafayette Collection of negatives at the V&A and National
Portrait Gallery is important for four reasons:
It is an enormous archive of portrait photographs of famous
and influential people, not only from Britain but from all parts
of the world. Many are of outstanding quality and interest.
Almost all can be identified.
The negatives shed much light on the art and techniques of commercial
studio photography. This is because the negatives show the partially
edited image, which can be compared to the cropped, touched
up, 'edited' version which was later 'published'.
The time span of the collection -- from the 1880s to the 1950s
--makes it possible to trace changing fashions in the art of
self-presentation as well as in photographic technique, all
within the context of a single business.
The collection is a treasure trove of design history. The exceptionally
clear glass plate images show costumes and jewellery in minute
detail. The collection also contains some surprises such as
photographs of important early motor cars.
Meadows, September 1990