Our heritage

The History of Lafayette Photography

Lafayette Photography has one of the oldest histories of any photographic business in the world, having been founded in Dublin in 1880 by James Stack Lauder, 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).

James ‘Lafayette’ was 27 when he founded the new firm and was soon joined in the new venture by his three brothers, all of whom were experienced photographers who had worked in their father's three studios.

The new business flourished from the start, and Lafaysoon established itself as the premier portrait studio in Ireland following commissions from the Viceroy and leading members of the Irish aristocracy.

Almost 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 year.

In 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 and brought with it the title of 'Photographer Royal'.

The Lafayette business expanded rapidly in the 1890s. Studios were established in Glasgow (1890), Manchester (1892) 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, to concen 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 Photographic News.

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.

James Lafayette died in Bruges in 1923, at the age of 70, and sadly the majority of negatives from the original Dublin studio were destroyed in 1951 (allegedly sold for re-use as glass panelling for green-houses!). However several hundred historic glass and nitrate negatives still survive, 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.

In 1972 a number of important Lafayette negatives were found in a London attic and were moved by builders to Pinewood Studios, where in 1988 they were rediscovered in a props store and given to the V&A.  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.

There 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 in the Gernsheim Collection at the University of Texas.

The Lafayette Collection of negatives at the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery are of particular national importance for four specific 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 almost all can be identified thanks to Lafayette’s diligent record keeping.   
  • The negatives are fabulous examples of the photographic techniques of the day. This is because the negatives show the partially edited image, which can then be compared to the cropped & touched up 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, and all within the context of a single business.
  • The collection is a treasure trove of design history, with the exceptionally clear glass plate images showing costumes and jewellery in minute detail. The collection even contains a few surprises, such as photographs of important early motor cars. 

Lafayette Photography Ltd, as it exists today and with over 130 years of experience, is now one of the oldest photographic companies in the world. Over the years the company has evolved to specialise in Academic Photography, and is proud to be continuing the tradition of providing high quality photographic services to the UK’s finest educational institutions.


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