Snapshots of an evolving nation | Richard Ellis

An upcoming talk organised by Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar will enliven the history of fin de siècle Malta through a series of evocative photographs.

The Mosta valley, as captured by Richard Ellis.
The Mosta valley, as captured by Richard Ellis.

Richard Ellis - The Man and His Legacy, an illustrated lecture to be presented by Ian Ellis at Hotel Phoenicia, Floriana on May 16 will shed light on one of Malta's first notable photographers.

Arriving to the island by chance in the mid-19th century, Ellis quickly established himself as a photographer. The result of his work gives us a broad photographic sweep of Malta both through the Victorian and the Edwardian periods.

His subject matter spans across the class divide, bequeathing us with vivid illustrations of Malta's architectural, economic and social development across that crucial historical period.

But Richard Ellis's biography is almost as fascinating as his work - and it will be a starting point for Ian Ellis's lecture on his great-great-uncle.

"Richard was born in England, and was apprenticed to a circus at the age of nine or ten," Ian Ellis said, adding that he wasn't entirely sure why the young Richard took that quirky career path.

"My hunch is that it has to do with him coming from a family of 13 siblings, and with being the middle child. His older brothers and sisters would be working 'proper' jobs while the younger ones would have been unable to work, so it must have seemed feasible to his parents to apprentice him to a couple who worked for a circus."

As is expected from such romantic tales, the circus took the young Richard all across Europe, and he first happened upon what was later to become his life's passion after he got a job at a photography institute in Paris.

"He must have had bags of natural talent, because soon enough he became apprenticed to one of the photographers at the circus. We have to remember that back then, photography was actually a sideshow attraction, a gimmick really. In fact I think there are similarities between Richard's life story and the film Hugo... in that like the director of Scorcese's film, he formed part of a circus-like set up..."

Owing to the fact that he was British (and therefore seen as a 'dependable' option for clients), Richard managed to successfully establish himself as a photographer in Malta, steadily raking in clients for commissions, while also managing to produce some of the most memorable photographs of the island from the 'middle' Victorian period up until the 1920s. 

"His photos provide an opportunity to look into the way people lived, and to see the change in way of life. Apart from the way people looked and dressed, his photos give us a glimpse of the way the pace of life shifted over the years too - like the way we moved from horse-driven carts to mechanised cars, for example."

But some of the photos also serve as a poignant reminder of how certain aspects of human life will remain the same, no matter the era.

"Some of Richard's clients would commission him to photograph them in front of their newly-bought carriages - much in the same way as people like to pose in front of their fancy sports cars these days!"

The talk will begin at 19:00. Attendees are asked to be seated at 18:45. Though entrance is free, booking is recommended by contacting: [email protected], 99 820159.