French, Robert (1841–1917), photographer, was born 11 November 1841 in Dublin, eldest of the seven children of William French, a court messenger, and Ellen French (née Johnson). At the age of nineteen, in September 1860, he joined the Constabulary (later RIC) as a sub-constable, giving his occupation as ‘porter’. He was stationed at the barracks at Glenealy, Co. Wicklow. Having served almost two years, he resigned in August 1862.
French next found employment in Dublin as a photographic printer, possibly at the portrait studio operated by John Fortune Lawrence at 39 Grafton Street. He later joined the more successful studio run by John Fortune's brother, William Mervin Lawrence (qv) (1840–1932), which opened at 7 Upper Sackville (later O'Connell) Street in March 1865. Progressing upwards through the grades of printer, colourer-retoucher and assistant photographer, he attained the rank of photographer in the mid-1870s. Meanwhile, William Mervin Lawrence had developed a lucrative trade in the sale of topographical views and he gave French the task of providing a comprehensive range of scenic photographs representing all parts of the country. French performed this role with dedication and distinction for almost forty years until his retirement in 1914.
French's function was to provide photographs for a market that favoured views of picturesque landscapes, seaside resorts, and the streets of cities, towns, and villages. Lawrence was in charge of marketing strategy and planned French's itineraries, but French selected the individual views. He travelled throughout the country, identifying and photographing appropriate subjects, generating stocks of negatives from which Lawrence's printers produced multiple images for sale in the medium of prints, stereoscopic views, and lantern slides. The images were also widely used in commercial advertising and in publications designed for the tourist market, particularly in the extensive postcard trade that Lawrence developed in the late 1890s. As people wanted views that were up-to-date, many of the images, particularly those of urban scenes, were periodically retired and replaced, the replacements almost invariably being taken from the same optimum viewpoint. The photographs presented the more positive aspects of Ireland and contemporary Irish life, with evidence of social deprivation appearing only incidentally, and with few instances of social or political conflict other than a relatively small number of eviction scenes.
French married, 1 December 1863, at St Peter's church, Dublin, Henrietta Jones, daughter of Griffith Jones, a farmer at Newcastle, Co. Wicklow. The couple had eleven children, some of whom long afterwards recalled their father as a fervent unionist, fond of singing rather loudly in the congregation at St Patrick's cathedral, and infuriatingly painstaking when taking family photographs. He is portrayed in a number of his own photographs as a dignified figure with a fine full beard. In his later years he lived on Ashfield Avenue, Ranelagh. He died 24 June 1917.
While French played a central role in the success of the Lawrence firm, which dominated the photographic trade nationally for a generation, his historical significance arises from the extensive archive of surviving negatives. These make up the greater part of the Lawrence collection (held by the National Photographic Archive in Dublin), amounting to approximately 30,000 of the 45,000 images in the collection. They reveal him as a talented and extremely competent photographer. His compositions presented sites to best advantage, and the images are invariably sharp and engaging and suggest the inherent atmosphere of the place. The predominant factor, however, is that the photographs provide an invaluable visual record of urban and rural Ireland over a period of almost forty years. They document the process of change and modernisation in various aspects of environment and society, reflecting the considerable economic and social progress in the decades of relative peace and prosperity leading up to the first world war. While engaged in the relatively mundane profession of commercial photographer, French emerged as one of the foremost chroniclers of his generation, albeit unwittingly, and endowed posterity with a unique cultural and educational resource.