Welch, Robert J. (1859-1936)


Robert John Welch. Photographer. b. Strabane, Co. Tyrone, 22 July 1859. The second son of David Welch (d. 1875) and Martha Graham, he developed an early interest in photography from his father who operated as a professional photographer from 1863 until his untimely death in 1875. The Welch Family, then living in Bangor, moved to Belfast, where the young Robert took on the role of principal breadwinner. He served his apprenticeship in the Belfast studio of E.T. Church, before setting up on his own in 1883, working from his home in Lonsdale Street, Belfast. Initially specialising in landscape and legal work, he first made his reputation by his “Irish views” which were used in railway carriages, hotels, transatlantic liners, and as illustrations in tourist guides and travel books. In 1900, he was awarded a Royal warrant for his work from Queen Victoria, one of only 10 photographers outside the British Isles to receive this honour. Other important clients and commissions came from the Royal Commission of Enquiry in 1886 to record the damage caused in Belfast after the anti-Home Rule riots of that year, the Belfast Rope works from 1899, Marcus Ward and Company, Harland & Wolff from c. 1895, and the Office of Public Works. A keen member of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, Welch also produced a prodigious portfolio of work depicting archaeological remains in the north of Ireland, geological sites in Ireland, views of Irish country life and photographs of rare Irish plants. Although lacking any formal education in these areas, he lectured and contributed many papers and illustrations to a variety of natural history publications throughout his life, receiving accreditation through his election to the Royal Irish Academy in 1904 and an honorary M.Sc from Queen’s University Belfast in 1923. In 1927, Welch was granted a civil pension of £100 per year by the Northern Ireland Parliament. He died on 28 September 1936. Source: Dictionary of Ulster Biography, Kate Newman (Belfast, 1993); A Century in Focus: Photography and Photographers in the North of Ireland, 1839-1939, W.A. Maguire (Belfast, 2000); Ireland's Eye. The Photographs of Robert John Welch, E. Estyn Evans and Brian S. Turner (Belfast, 1977)