Ireland's Eye: Photographs by Robert Welch

Permanent exhibition at the Ulster Museum

Robert John Welch was one of the great pioneers of photography. Specialising in outdoors photography, he made thousands of photographs of the towns and scenery of Ireland. He was a skilled craftsman and his studies of Ireland and Irish life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are today justly famous. A permanent exhibition at the Ulster Museum features twenty enlarged photographs on the subject of travel and transport.

Robert John Welch, son of an accomplished Scottish amateur photographer, was born in Strabane in 1859.

After his father’s death in 1875, Welch became the main support for his mother, sister and brother, and gained employment as a photographer's assistant in the studio of ET Church, Belfast. In 1883, he set up a studio of his own in Lonsdale Street, which would become his home for the rest of his life.

Initially Welch specialised in landscape and legal work. His ‘Irish Views’ were widely known, and he supplied documentary photographs for the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the anti-Home Rule riots of 1886. A member of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, his records of archaeological remains and geological features, and ethnological studies of peasant life throughout Ireland are still valuable.

Having photographed the linen industry and the Belfast ropeworks, Welch was appointed the official photographer for shipbuilders Harland and Wolff in the mid 1890s. His records of the shipbuilding industry, and especially of the construction of the Titanic, perpetuate an image of Belfast at the height of its industrial prosperity.

Welch was elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1904. Nevertheless, the first world war and subsequent fighting in Ireland restricted Welch’s livelihood, and troubles in his family tested his mental and emotional resources: he appears to have had a nervous breakdown after 1915. In 1927, the government of Northern Ireland awarded him a civil list pension of £100 a year.

Robert Welch died in September 1936.

Further Reading

A Century in Focus: Photography and Photographers in the North of Ireland 1839-1939 (2000) by WA Maguire; Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993) by Kate Newmann.