The story begins back in 1891, when Arthur Holdsworth Leach, at the age of 20, acquired a photographic business in Brighouse, Yorkshire and advertised that “by carrying out the highest class of work and endeavouring to serve his customers’ best interests, he hopes to merit a share of the public favours”.
Arthur had already worked for six years in another photography studio and had risen to the position of studio manager, but he keenly wanted to run his own business. To show support for his son, Arthur’s father George who, as a joiner at a local carpet factory was not a wealthy man, managed to save and borrow a total of five pounds, and this sum was the capital with which the business was started.
Arthur was a fine photographer in the Victorian tradition and the quality of his work was of a high standard as can be seen from examples surviving to this day. From the outset he was meticulous in producing professionally finished work – fully retouched, mounted and finished prints – and it must have been this insistence on high standards in the darkrooms and the workrooms that quickly led to him to appreciate the need of practising professional photographers for a specialist print production and finishing service.
So, in around 1893, Arthur started to undertake print production work for other photographers. There must have been two basic reasons for this decision to change his focus from capturing photographs to printing them. First, the photographic materials of the time were difficult to work with, coarse textured paper and slow awkward processes, which the photographer must have been glad to sub-contract. Secondly, photography was the booming technology of the times so there was a rapidly growing potential market.
The business flourished to the extent that, in 1896, Mr Leach purchased a plot of land and built a small photographic workshop. He formed a limited company to finance this, and in July 1897 he published a first trade price list. This covered an extensive range of styles and services and also gave an insight into Mr Leach’s appreciation of the value of photographic printing as a large format display medium. By offering giant enlargements – up to 8’ x 4’ – he set the pace for keeping the company to the fore in applying technology to the market.
By 1914 one hundred people were employed in the works and the outbreak of the First World War saw further growth as demand for portraiture of soldiers and their families was increasing. At this time photographers usually captured their images on whole-plate glass negatives. Thus a major problem was the provision of safe packing materials for sending the negatives through the post!
Between the wars portrait photographs were less fashionable and demand contracted further through the slump years of the early 1930s. The Company therefore turned its attention to exploiting the photographic process as an advertising and publicity medium, creating the Leach Photowork brand for this purpose. Display prints, show-cards, cut-outs and view postcards – all using the basic photographic printing technique – were produced in increasing quantities. The peak of this activity was reached in 1939 when one and a quarter million photographic cigarette cards were produced each week and over three hundred staff were employed at the Brighouse works.
Arthur Leach died in 1938, but in his 47 years in business he had created a legacy of a strongly financed company with sustainable values and innovative flair which was set to prosper for many decades after his death. He was succeeded as Chairman and Managing Director by his son Eric Leach who joined the firm in 1920 and retired in 1967.
With the outbreak of the Second World War the character of the business changed again. Restrictions were placed on advertising and on the use of paper but it soon became clear to the Authorities that photographs played a large part in maintaining morale between families separated during the War. So the demand for portrait images mushroomed and the Company’s established skills in this field enabled it not only to survive but to flourish.
In the years after the Second World War colour photography took off and, once again, the company’s reputation as an innovator and early adopter of new technology was enhanced with investment in colour processing equipment and techniques from all over the world. By the mid-1960s demand for colour photographs was growing faster than the available supply of machinery capable of producing them. For one period during 1967, and despite having more colour printing machines than any other company, the number of orders received was so great that around one-third of these had to be returned to the customer unfulfilled. This must have been anathema to such a customer-orientated company, but with all the equipment that could be acquired running 24 hours a day, there was no other alternative.
By the late-1960s the colour process was greatly simplified, and automatic machinery was developed to standardise production, whilst at the same time the quality of the materials improved. Significant investment was required, and this factor combined with the planned retirement of Eric Leach, led to the decision to sell the company to Hunting PLC. Under Hunting’s ownership the company continued to be managed by the Leach family, with Eric’s son John Leach taking up the role of Managing Director.
It was in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the company’s main market niches of the twenty-first century were established. For many years the company had offered large format prints for all kind of applications, such as for the home market, public spaces and government offices. But in 1958 an order from the Victoria & Albert Museum for display prints sowed the seeds of specialisation in the museum display sector. The V&A had been a customer since 1950, ordering photographic postcards of their collection via Leach’s London Office. But now the museum wanted to take the use of its image collection further with the idea of creating the first interpretive graphic panels combining image and text. Several hundred of the museum’s own glass plate negatives were overlaid with descriptive text in a complex and painstaking procedure carried out in Leach’s darkrooms. The prints from these enhanced negatives, which were enlarged to 30 inches in size, card mounted and overlaid with a grey surround, combined information and image at high quality on a single layer using a process which was economical for one-off reproduction at very large sizes. And so an early technique for producing museum interpretation displays was born, to be re-invented several times over the following decades as advancing technology allowed more and more dramatic results.
Then in 1962, a seminal enquiry was received by John Leach from Joseph Hepworth Tailors, a leading men’s fashion retailer and the company which went on to become Next. At first Hepworth supplied two black & white negatives of men’s fashion shots from which they required a four foot by three foot enlargement, mounted onto hardboard. Hepworth’s memorable slogan of the times “Young, Vital, Alert” was overlaid onto the negatives in the darkroom, and the resulting prints were hand coloured by airbrush in Leach’s large artworking department. The finished product had such an effect on Hepworth’s management that they increased their order from two to 500. At a price of £2 19s 6d each, this was believed to be the company’s largest ever order at that point. Over the next decade many more orders of this kind were received as Hepworths evolved into the UK’s largest clothing retailer with over 600 stores. By the time Hepworths and Kendalls combined to make Next in the early 80’s, Leach was already working for many of the newly expanding High Street multiples.
During the 1970s and 80s, the business increased its number of printing processes to include screen print and litho print and also enlarged its graphic design capabilities to complement the long established team of retouchers and artworkers.
The 1990s saw the beginnings of one of the most disruptive challenges in the company’s history – the onset of digital imaging technology. Digital technologies presented a great threat as they cut out many of the intermediate film-based products which were the company’s staple - camera negative film and colour-separation film for the printing process to name the two major ones. But the new technology also opened up great opportunities for designers to create more impactful effects which could be reproduced at ever increasing sizes using these fast-arriving digital technologies.
In the early part of their careers, current Managing Director Richard Leach and his brother-in-law and Co-Director Jim Parkin set about reshaping the company to take advantage of these opportunities. This involved a commitment to invest heavily in digital scanning and processing equipment, trying to predict the speed and direction of the market to ensure a good return on these major investments. Early investments in an enormous Japanese drum scanner and a large format laser photo imager were successful in creating better quality and larger sized end products for customers in the core markets of museum and retail display.
In 1999, a change in strategic focus by owners Hunting PLC offered the opportunity to bring the company back into family ownership. The successful family acquisition was led by John Leach, who then stepped back into the Chairman’s role after 32 years as MD. At this point John trusted the younger, and fourth, generation of the family to take up the executive management. Hence Richard Leach was appointed Managing Director and Jim Parkin was also promoted to Director in the closing days of the twentieth century.
The new century saw the pace of development of digital technology slow a little and hence the emphasis fell back on innovating new products and services to excite customers and keep competitors at bay. One of the great achievements of this time was the invention of the Stik magnetic wallpaper product which secured the Queen’s Award for Innovation for the company and has been installed in well over 1000 retail outlets.
The company grew strongly in the 2000s and the existing century-old, four-story factory was providing a bar to progress. Hence modern, large new premises were purpose built for the company in Huddersfield in 2005, and these are still the home of the company today. The growth of the company up to the global recession of 2008, and subsequently after that traumatic period, has been driven by a focus on increasing design creativity and by creating packages of products and services which span graphic printing and interior fit-out. In creating such packages as bespoke LED-illuminated retail graphics and highly graphical museum gallery interiors the company is offering compelling solutions into our chosen market niches of visitor and brand environments.
We hope that the innovation, customer focus and honesty which have been in the company’s DNA for over a century, and continue to be displayed more strongly than ever in the competitive markets of today, will serve the company well for the next twenty five years and beyond.