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Robert Welch - Photographer of Ireland
The Robert Welch photographs in the Library of Birmingham form part of the Sir Benjamin Stone Collection; acquired by Benjamin Stone between 1904 and 1906. Archives, Heritage and Photography hold more than 400 of his photos. Robert Welch, born in 1859, had a photographic studio in Belfast. Though he never married he had many friends who spoke of his helpfulness and generosity, he was described as a 'friend to all the world'. He died in 1936.
Robert Welch travelled all over Ireland taking photos of the people and their way of life; he advertised himself as an 'ethnographer'. As a commercial photographer, he sold copies to many different organisations. His photos were used as postcards, as illustrations for travel books, and to accompany scientific lectures. You may recognise some of the images here. The way of life Robert Welch recorded a hundred years ago had started to change even then, but much is still familiar - turf fires, donkeys working on the land, children by the sea.
He was also a keen photographer of geological subjects, and of plants native to Ireland. In the early 1880s photography involved cumbersome equipment, which Robert Welch carried to the remotest districts, travelling by rail and jaunting-car. He took great pains to obtain the best picture possible. He once climbed a mill-chimney to get a good view when taking pictures for the Belfast Ropeworks Company.
Whilst Robert Welch's aim was to record a way of life, his photos are not snapshots of a moment in time; they are carefully composed tableaux. Spinning was not normally an outdoor task. People in the photos are posed; tools and domestic implements which would have been inside are arranged around them. Robert Welch photographed many types of spinning-wheel, as he did of other common tools, because he was interested in how they had developed.
Robert Welch photographed many of the ancient remains of Ireland, Celtic crosses, ruined churches and abbeys, cromlechs, and burial mounds. Sir Benjamin Stone was himself interested in antiquities, so acquired many of these. This photo shows Newgrange as it was around 1900, before it had been restored. The entrance to the central chamber behind the kerbstone was overgrown, and obscured.
Robert Welch took many photos of kitchens, with all the domestic implements carefully grouped. Most kitchens have a turf fire, and a dresser. Other furniture, crockery, and cooking tools, depend upon the relative social status and wealth of the home. This was an inn kitchen 'of the better sort' (Robert Welch). For the most part there are no people in photos taken inside; when taking photos in factories he would often ask all the workers to leave so that there would be a clear picture of the machinery.
Shell-gathering was one of Robert Welch's many interests. The children here may have been paid to collect shells.
There is a large collection of Robert Welch photos in the Ulster Museum; including pictures of the linen and shipbuilding industries, and of city life in Belfast and Dublin.
You will need to make an appointment at the Library of Birmingham if you would like to view more of the Robert Welch photo collection. There are also some photos of Ireland by Sir Benjamin Stone.
All images on this webpage are the copyright of the Library of Birmingham - Archives, Heritage and Photography department.