How Francis Frith created a Photographic Record of Britain
About Francis Frith and our Company
Creating a Photographic Record of Britain
After returning from his third and last expedition to Egypt and the
Holy Land in 1860, Francis Frith married and settled in Reigate,
Fired by the commercial and artistic success of the photographs
taken on his Middle Eastern journeys, Frith decided to create a
new business, F. Frith & Co, as the World’s first specialist
publisher of photographs.
Francis Frith set out to create accurate and unromantic
photographs of as many cities, towns and villages of the British
Isles as possible and sell copies of the photographs to the
public, who were travelling in ever greater numbers and looking
for souvenirs of their travels. The growth and expansion of the
Victorian railway system was stimulating tourism as well as
spurring on the development of seaside resorts to cater for
growing crowds of holiday visitors.
This hand-written page from Frith & Co’s ledgers indicates the
extent of Francis Frith’s photographic activities during a visit
to North Devon in 1872-73, when he and his family stayed in a
rented house in Ilfracombe. From his base at Ilfracombe he
travelled as far as Minehead and Duster to the east and Bude to
the south-west. The columns to the right indicate the sizes of
plates exposed at each location.
From its very early days, F Frith & Co’s photographic business
was more than he could manage by himself so he employed a team of
company photographers to work under his direction; he trained them to
take photographs to his specifications, insisting that they should
master his own technique in detail. Francis Frith firmly believed that
photography was a work of art, and when taking his own photographs
he was most concerned to select viewpoints and lighting conditions
which showed each subject to advantage.
By the 1870s the market for Frith & Co’s products was huge
especially after Bank Holidays and half-day Saturdays were made
obligatory by Act of Parliament in 1871.
Frith’s studio supplied souvenir photographic prints to retail
shops all over the country. The catalogue issued by Frith &
Co in 1886 runs to some 670 pages, listing not only many
thousands of views of the British Isles but also photographs of
most European countries, and China, Japan, the USA and Canada
which Francis Frith commissioned from other photographers. By
1890 Francis Frith had created the first and greatest specialist
photographic publishing company in the world, with over 2,000
From an early date the Frith company employed a team of sales
representatives who toured stationers’ and newsagents’ shops with the
Frith collection of souvenir views for them to stock and sell.
A ‘Frith’s Photographs’ display board is seen on the outside wall in
this photograph of Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales in 1890.
Beautifully constructed with a mahogany frame and gilt inserts, the
boards could display up to a dozen local scenes. Two of these old
‘Frith’s Photographs’ boards are still proudly displayed in the
office of The Francis Frith Collection.
By the mid 1880s the business was an established and prosperous
success. After thirty years of photographing Britain and building up
his company, he gradually retired from involvement with F Frith & Co,
leaving itsmanagement to his sons Eustace and Cyril. From the late
1880s Francis Frith and his wife spent every winter in France or
Italy, where the warmer climate eased his asthma and other health
problems. It was on one of these winter holidays that he died in
1898, aged seventy-six, at his villa at Cannes in the south of France.
Francis Frith’s greatest achievement was arguably the creation of his
photographic legacy which forms the most extensive, important and well
preserved collection of early British documentary photography to have
survived intact. It is a unique and priceless record of the people and
the places of Britain in the 19th century.