James Stack Lauder (James Lafayette) (1853-1923) photographer and managing director of Lafayette Ltd [published in Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, New York, 2008]
James Stack Lauder (1853-1923), photographer, under the name James Lafayette, was born in Dublin on 22 January 1853, the eldest son in the family of six sons and four daughters of Edmund Stanley Lauder (1824-1891), photographer, and his wife Sarah Stack (1828-1913). Edmund was the a pioneering and successful photographer who had opened a daguerreotype studio in Dublin in 1853.
In 1880 James Stack Lauder founded his own photography studio, using for the first time the professional name of James Lafayette ‘late of Paris’ and naming his studio variously ‘Jacques Lafayette’, ‘J. Lafayette’ and ‘Lafayette’ as an indication of his artistic training in the city of lights. He was joined in the new business by his three brothers, all of whom were experienced photographers who had worked in their father's studio. In 1884 he was elected member of the Photographic Society of Great Britain, and thereafter his entries in the multitudinous photographic competitions around Britain and in Europe started winning him medals for ‘exceptionally fine portraits’.
By 1885, the studio’s output was praised in print by the Photographic Society of Great Britain as ‘very beautiful, being distinguished for delicacy of treatment...’ and Lafayette’s early experiments with hand-colouring produced images which were described as ‘permanent carbon photographs painted in water-colour on porcelain’, and the new specialist photographic press waxed generally lyrical over the fine quality of ‘Monsieur Lafayette’s’ portraiture. His work was noted to be of the highest technical excellence. His poses were graceful and good, the flesh was rendered as flesh and the folds of the drapery were rich and effective in the ‘Rembrandt style.’ As well as producing a number of faux rustic and cloying images of mother and child in the high Victorian style, Lafayette registered many idylls for copyright at Stationers’ Hall. A typical image of this genre, half photograph, half line drawing, made as late as June 1894 has elements of highly sanitised fully-clothed Victorian eroticism depicting, in Lauder’s own words, a ‘group of two figures, girl on ladder gathering apple blossom, man under tree receiving same in his hat, called ‘Blossoming Hopes.’’
During the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago, the foremost German professor of photography, H.W. Vogel, described a portrait by Lafayette’s work as the ‘grandest photographs… He shows great skill in finely arranged single pictures and groups. A suspended angel, almost life-size and taken from life, is remarkable.’ This floating angel could be considered a rudimentary beginning of special effects photography and it was not until decades later that an employee divulged that the image had been made by photographing the subject lying down on a large sheet of glass over a painted background, so adjusted and so illuminated as to give the proper idea of perspective and the draperies having been arranged on the surface of the glass to give the impression of flight.
In the studio’s commercial portraits, Lafayette followed the recipe well-tested from the early days of the daguerreotype when having an image made of oneself suddenly became affordable and no longer the preserve of active patrons of painters. As the subjects of portraits became democratised, the commercial photographer faced the situation of having to make flattering photographs of people who had no experience of sitting for a portrait and Lafayette’s art of posing and skill in cropping the prints from his 12” x 15” glass negatives engendered both commercial success and, on 6 March 1887, the grant of a Royal Warrant as ‘Photographer to Her Majesty at Dublin.’
The Royal Warrant, which was subsequently renewed by King Edward VII and George V, conferred enormous prestige, and the style and title of ‘Photographer Royal’ on the studio advertising and promotional literature, proved extremely useful in attracting new clients. The business expanded rapidly in the 1890s. Studios were established in Glasgow (1890), Manchester (1892), and with the expected business bulge in Jubilee year (1897) a branch was opened on London’s fashionable 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.
Lafayette's commercial success coincided with developments in the half-tone printing process which resulted in the proliferation of illustrated weekly magazines. The firm was one of the first to recognize the opportunities offered by syndicating photographs and portraits of his favourite subjects – ‘some of the great ladies of the land’ - were published in such great numbers as full page covers in The Queen, The Tatler, and Chic, inter alia, that The Lady’s Realm in 1900 stated outright: ‘It is well-night impossible to open any magazine or paper which contains portraits of present-day celebrities without seeing at least one reproduction of a photograph by the well-known Lafayette house [with its] ‘special Lafayette silver process.’’ By 1897, the fame of his portraits of the great society beauties, such as the Countess of Warwick, Daisy Princess of Pless and Queen Alexandra, led the critic Levin Carnac (pseudonym of the author George Chetwynd Griffith-Jones) to muse in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 that it was ‘Lafayette’s blissful lot to photograph more of the most beautiful and distinguished women of Europe than anyone else.’ The male was not forgotten and portraits of distinguished men and from society, the stage and politics appeared prominently in the various new publications, frequently providing the frontispiece and setting the tone for the publication.
The sale of photographic postcards had also become big business, and certain images by Lafayette, such as Queen Alexandra in her Doctor of Music robes, registered for copyright on 28 April 1885, sold over eighty thousand copies by 1900. The Lafayette range of postcards included many images of the British royal family as well as luminaries of the stage, including a seminal series of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet from her London season of 1899.
On 2 July 1897, to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Louisa, Duchess of Devonshire (1832-1911), one of London’s foremost political hostesses, held a costume ball with around 700 guests ranging from royalty down to aristocracy and a commission went out to Lafayette, who had opened a studio on London’s fashionable Bond Street with ‘patent fog-clearing equipment’ earlier that year, to set up a tent in the garden to photograph the guests in costume during the Ball. This would have been a formidable commission for James Stack Lauder, and evidence from the extant negatives shows that he had transported from the Bond Street studio a variety of backdrops and props and, of course, photographic equipment. His remit was to photograph guests who would be in costumes ranging from mythological and ancient Greek down to renaissance and oriental characters. In order to capture the sense of event and location, the studio prepared a new backdrop representing the very lawn and gardens of Devonshire House complete with statuary. Approximately 162 negatives exist from this event, many of which were published by the Duchess of Devonshire in a private album and which represent the studio’s largest output from a single photographic session. A copy of this album is held by the National Portrait Gallery, London.
The Lafayette studio which survived the vicissitudes of World War I and Irish Independence finally closed in 1952 – the Lauder family having been in the business continuously from 1853. A store room of negatives, possibly representing the press archive of the studio, was discovered in the attic of a building in Fleet Street building was discovered 1968 during building works. The archive was eventually handed to the Victoria & Albert Museum, London which kept 3,500 glass plate and celluloid negatives dating from 1885 to c 1937. The rest of the collection, consisting of circa 40,000 nitrate negatives from the 1920s to the early 1950s, was given to the National Portrait Gallery.
During the heyday of the Lafayette studio, the ranks of sitters included most of the British royal family, many European royalties, a significant number of maharajas and official visitors from the Far East. The quality of the studio’s portraiture peaked between 1897-1920 and was an inspiration to the following generation of photographers, who were more willing to experiment with new styles of lighting and posing. Of the thousands of images credited to Lafayette and which are recognisably portraits in the Lafayette style, only 649 photographs registered for copyright before 1912 bear the signature of James Lauder as author.
James Stack Lauder died at the Hôpital St Jean, Bruges on 20 August 1923.