Interview | Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The last of the Ellises

When the spinster Richard Ellis passed away in the early 90s, many collectors were already dreaming of laying their hands on what is probably Malta’s most precious photography collection. When Ian Ellis took over his uncle’s firm, it took everyone by surprise. David Darmanin talks to the heir himself

After almost 150 years, the name of Richard Ellis is still synonymous to photography. After settling in Malta at age 18 to establish one of the first photography firms on the island, Richard Ellis was succeeded by his son John. The latter was eventually taken over by his son Richard Ellis Jr.
Richard, who never had children, ran the firm until when he was on his deathbed some 15 years ago, at the age of 82.
Clearly, Ian Ellis recounted the adventure of how he got involved in the firm many times before. And yet, he spoke of how he suddenly found himself running a photographic archive and publishing coffee-table books with the same excitement as one who would have only just learnt the story.
“Richard Ellis’ adoptive parents were circus actors,” he started, well aware that the story of his firm’s origins is romantic as romantic can get. “Richard originally came from England but he spent his childhood touring Europe with the circus, learning photography along the way.
“When Richard was 18, the circus was in Sicily during Garibaldi’s campaign of 1860. As uprisings provoked danger, Richard and his adoptive parents quickly moved to the closest British colony, finding themselves settling in Senglea. Short of setting up a circus in Malta, they started photography.”
At the time photography was a novel invention, as it was registered only in 1839.
“Richard Ellis was one of the first photographers in Malta, although we know that at the time there was Orazio Agius, Preziosi and a couple of Englishmen.
“Richard Ellis’ initial commissions entailed taking photos of corpses, as families at the time would want a photo of their dead relatives for keepsake. As time went by, they became studio photographers. British connections also proved to be very useful, and the studio eventually took official exclusive commissions for the British Navy and for all royal visits to Malta.”
Moving on to describe John Ellis, Richard’s son who eventually took over the operation, Ellis said: “He was a very competent artist but although he practiced as a photographer we all know that photography was not really his forte. However, the business still ran. John was socially involved. He presided over the board of ‘arti, manufattura u kummerċ’ – an important body at the time.”
Seemingly, John Ellis’ involvement in the organisation of the Euro-democratic Congress and the Red Cross had also earned the studio numerous commissions. He would, for example, take photos of soldiers to send over to their respective families, thanks to Red Cross assignments.
After John’s demise in 1932, his son, carrying the same namesake as his grandfather Richard took over the studio.
“Richard started off at age 19 and ran the business until he died at age 82. My father, Richard’s brother, was the only one of four brothers who married. So the only people who could actually take over the business were either my sister or myself. When I decided to take over, I immediately started working on organising the archives. We have negatives dating back to the 1860s here, and it’s all organised and compiled. I then started the process of digitalising,” he explained.
Asked whether he had ever considered selling off, or otherwise disposing of the archives upon inheritance, Ellis said: “Shortly after my uncle Richard passed away we had all sorts of offers for the contents of our archives, and it took time before I decided what to do with the material. Some offers verged on the ridiculous. One time, someone called to get hold of the negatives, melt them and sell the silver extracted out of them. Another time, I was approached by the British Royal Museum as they were keenly interested in the collection. When an English colonel approached me with the idea of letting the museum host the collection I asked him what they would be prepared to pay. He had told me that my family had been taking the British government for a ride for almost 150 years, suggesting that it was high time we gave something back. I’m not telling you how I answered.”
Eventually Ellis teamed up book publisher Tony Gatt, whom he had known for a long time. “Tony put me in contact with photographer Patrick Fenech and that’s how our present team was formed. Together with Natalino Fenech, late last year we released a hard back publication by the name of ‘Richard Ellis: The Photography Collection’.”
The 261-page publication features a set of 200 photos of Valletta and Floriana, taken over the past 140 years.
“Not only was this publication a huge success but we really enjoyed the process of choosing the material and compiling the entire publication. We are now working on another one on Malta and Gozo, due in November this year.”
Going back to the history of the firm, Ellis added: “Unlike his father John, Richard was an excellent photographer. He undertook several projects, be they studio shots or photos depicting very important moments in history. In the collection in fact, we have a good number of illegally shot war photos.”
We haven’t seen the Richard Ellis stamp on any photos in recent years. What happened to the studio? What operation is the firm involved in now? What are the plans?
“In his old age, Richard Ellis decided to stop the studio operation, and that was round about the time when digital photography started coming in. The firm Richard Ellis now still exists, but on a limited basis. Now we are almost fully oriented in making best use of the archives. With Tony on board, we are now more inclined to publishing. We are also trying to build a working relationship with the national archives in order to create a centralised collection of Malta’s historical photography.
“We are now also working on our next publication, involving the three cities. After that, we are aiming to go for a publication featuring Malta and Gozo.
“Another publication we would be interested in compiling would be one featuring photos of the important historical events of Malta happening over the past 140 years. We also have a collection of photos of every warship that entered the grand harbour between 1870 and 1939, it would also be interesting to put those photos to use.”
Elaborating on how this collection came about, Ellis explained: “A marketing technique they used at the time was to take photos from a boat bearing a flag advertising the studio. As the navy crew arrived on land, they would walk up to the studio and order a copy of the photo of the ship sailing into the harbour. This made us known as the fastest developers on the island.”
So without the proper technology, how did they manage to take photos from a boat those days?
“Well, don’t ask me where it came from but apparently they used the base of a huge compass that was normally fitted on ships. Taking out the compass needle and replacing it with a camera, the equipment acted as a stabiliser.”
In 1908, when John Ellis already ran the studio, the British Red Cross had sent aid to Sicily when a tsunami had razed Messina to the ground.
“Because John was active with Red Cross, he had joined the fleet – which incidentally arrived 24 to 36 hours before representatives of the Italian government reached Messina. The photos we have of the catastrophe are among the earliest around.”

21 May 2008

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