Lee of Portrush: an introduction

One of the projects I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while is scanning and dating a boxful of old cabinet photographs and postcards produced by Lee of Portrush in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

At least five members and three generations of the Lee family worked as professional photographers in this small Northern Irish town – the last of them was my grandfather, William Lee, who carried the business on into the 1970s. Their later output doesn’t turn up much – I don’t think I’ve run across anything post-1920s – but a steady trickle of their older photographs appear on ebay and on family history sites. They produced a range of monochrome and coloured postcards of Portrush and the surrounding area, did a good trade in portrait photographs, and at one point ended up proprietors of (both temperance and non-temperance) hotels. Briefly, one brother decamped to South Africa (before deciding to come home again) and they proudly announced “Portrush, Coleraine, and Cape Town” – a combination rarely encountered. A more unusual line of work, however, was that they had a studio at the Giant’s Causeway.

The Causeway is the only World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland, and was as popular a tourist attraction then as now. A narrow-gauge electric tramline was built out from Portrush to Bushmills and then the Causeway in the 1880s, bringing in a sharp increase in visitors. And – because the Victorians were more or less the same people as we are now – they decided there was no better way to respond to a wonder of the natural world than to have your photograph taken while standing on it, so that you can show it to all your friends. Granted, you had to pay someone to take the photo, sit still with a rictus grin, then wait for them to faff around with wet plates and developer; not quite an iPhone selfie, but the spirit is the same even if the subjects were wearing crinolines. There is nothing new in this world.

The Lees responded cheerfully to this, and in addition to the profitable postcard trade, made a great deal of money by taking photographs of tourists up from Belfast or Dublin, or even further afield. (They then lost it again over the years; Portrush was not a great place for long-term investment once holidays to the Mediterranean became popular.)

Many of these are sat in shoeboxes; some turn up occasionally on eBay, where I buy them if they’re a few pounds. It’s a nice thing to have, since so little else survives of the business. One problem is that very few are clearly dated, and as all parts of the family seem to have used “Lees Studio”, or a variant, it’s not easy to put them in order, or to give a historical context. For the people who have these as genealogical artefacts, this is something of a problem – ideally, we’d be able to say that this particular card style was early, 1880-1890, that address was later, etc., to help give some clues as to when it was taken.

Fast forward a few years. Last November, I had an email from John Kavanaugh, who’d found a Lee photograph of his great-great-grandfather (John Kavanagh, 1822-1904), and managed to recreate the scene on a visit to the Causeway:

Family resemblance, 1895-2015
Courtesy John Kavanaugh/Efren Gonzalez

It’s quite striking how similar the two are. The stone the elder John was sat on has now crumbled, fallen, or been moved, but the rock formations behind him are unchanged. The original photo is dated c. 1895, so this covers a hundred and twenty years and five generations.

So, taking this as a good impetus to get around to the problem, I borrowed a scanner yesterday and set to. Fifty-odd photographs later, I’ve updated the collection on flickr, and over the next few posts I’ll try and draw together some notes on how to date them.

(Addendum: all comments below will be replied to by email if possible! I am always delighted to see new photographs from the Lees, and will see what I can do to help you date them. Many thanks for all the comments, and please do get in touch.)

11 thoughts on “Lee of Portrush: an introduction”

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I have an old photograph from Lee’s studio that I’d be happy to share with you if you’d be interested?

    Kind regards,

    Mark O’Keeffe

  2. I have a few Lee Portrush photographs as well and would love to share. They are fading and hard to see the figures in some.

  3. This was an interesting article to read. I’ve been doing some Photoshop restoration on a large number of photos of my friend’s ancestors, and some of them were by Lee Portrush, which brought me to your article. :)

  4. I have finally got round to some reasonably far past relatives in my family tree. It includes photocopies of prints from Robert Lee – Portrush taken of my grandmother, 2 (Mary and Grace) of her three sisters (nee Sevestre) and the aunt Miss O’Kane who brought them up after their mother died in childbirth in 1880. The collection includes a photo of the house, and one of the maid and child at the beach. More than happy to share them with you; and would appreciate if you could provide any other information that would be of use to me in family tree and history development. Apparently Mary and Grace continued to live in the same house until in their 70’s; so I presume about the 1940’s.
    My grandmother went to India, married my grandfather there – and their 5 children all had interesting lives in a combination of NZ, Canada, UK, Australia and France.

  5. Hi Andrew
    I have a photograph of my grandmother, Mary Woods, taken at the Lee Studio in the 1890s and wonder if any other member of the family had photos taken at that time. I cannot seem to access any of the studio photos on flickr. I can share the photo of my grandmother if you wish.
    Regards

  6. I have copy old photo my ggandmother and baby boy from WI,
    Likely taken between July 1864 and Jan 1865. Taken after her husband died in service, Vicksburg in July 1864.

    Cover lists Robert Lee,
    Artist and photographer, the Art Studio
    Causeway View PORTRUSH.
    (Cannot discern backdrop on copy)
    I am certain they did not travel to Ireland.

    Assumed taken in WI or OHFamily from WI; widow may have been in OH to file for widow’s pension.
    I am certain they did not travel to Portrush in Ireland.
    Was the studio name active in US?
    Thanks for help on this mystery.

  7. Hello Andrew

    I have a family photo in a brown frame which states Lee, Portrush on the right, bottom corner … I think it is about 1895. Possibly, it may have been taken while on holiday in Portrush. I am happy to share with you too.

  8. Did any of the above comments yield a response from Andrew Gray? I, too, have a “Lee, artist, Landsdowne, Portrush” family photo and was excited to find this post from a Google search, then disappointed that photo dating clues never seem to have been posted. Even signed up on Flickr only to find nothing of the Lee photos, only dozens and dozens of Andrew Grays. Would love to hear if any more info on the Lee photos is ever added.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *