Richard Ellis: The Photography Collection
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Richard Ellis: The Photography Collection

X-ray images in Malta pre-dated invention announcement - new book

A panoramic view of Floriana showing trams which dealt a big blow to karozzini.

A panoramic view of Floriana showing trams which dealt a big blow to karozzini.

The first X-ray images in Malta were developed a month before the invention was announced by William Conrad Röntgen, a professor of physics at the University of Wurzburg, on December 28, 1896, a new book shows.

The book, Richard Ellis: The Photography Collection, was launched on Friday by former Presidents Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Guido de Marco, who both said the lavish publication documented important aspects of Malta's social history.

The first volume, written by Natalino Fenech, deals with Valletta and Floriana and includes the history of the Ellis family.

The 261-page book contains over 200 photos of Valletta and Floriana, reproduced from the original glass plate negatives taken by Ellis, some of which are over 140 years old.

Richard Ellis ended up in Malta quite by chance in April 1861. He had studied photography in Paris, which was the hub of the emergent art, and came to Malta at the age of 19 with his adoptive parents.

"The story of how Richard Ellis ended up in Malta is as dramatic as the photos he was later to take, which made Richard Ellis's name a household name in Malta," Dr Fenech said.

James Conroy and his wife Sara, who were in the entertainment business, adopted Richard and he travelled with them throughout Europe. In April 1861, the Conroys and Richard were travelling through Italy when they were caught up in the Garibaldian struggle and so decided to head for Malta.

On settling in Malta, Mr Conroy opened a photo studio in Senglea and Richard Ellis acted as his assistant. Nine years later they opened a studio in Strait Street, Valletta, and in 1871 Mr Ellis left the Conroys and set up his own studio.

Apart from buildings and scenes of Malta, Mr Ellis took many photos of ships, crews and ongoing projects. His son, John, gave up a career in medicine and joined the business to help his father and produced what must be the first X-ray images taken in Malta in November 1896.

John's son, also called Richard, continued to run the business in 1931, after the death of his father. He continued to take photos just like his grandfather had done and saved the Ellis archive from devastation in World War II by moving the negatives to the safety of a Wardija home. The building in Valletta where the photographs had been stored was badly damaged.

The first volume has scenes of Valletta and Floriana and shows changes in several landmarks in Valletta and Floriana starting from around the late 1860s to about 1930.

"The book is a chronicle of change but it also shows that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The photos of Valletta without the Opera House are a gentle reminder that re-development and demolition and re-erection are not a malady we are suffering from only now. The main difference seems to be that then things were done with just a little more taste. Indeed, this is a book about change," Dr Fenech said.

"The issue of projects costing more than initially estimated was commonplace at that time too. St Paul's Anglican pro-Cathedral, financed by Queen Adelaide, was originally estimated to cost £8,000, but ended up costing double that amount. The Opera House, built between 1860 and 1866, cost £60,000, again, double the original projection.

"Though revered for the way it looked from the outside, especially after it had been demolished by enemy action, town planners Harrison and Hubbard criticised it saying it was not a historical monument, had severe practical defects and very bad acoustics," Dr Fenech said.

"Much as we romance with the past, it does not necessarily mean those were better times. They were certainly less stressful but not necessarily less strenuous. The photos of workmen building the wrought iron greenhouse that once stood at the Argotti Gardens, the smartly-dressed but barefoot children or the labourers working on the Harper Project are a clear tesimony to this," the author added.

"Ellis' photos will remain a source of inspiration and information for many years to come. They are a historical record in which one can see artefacts, tools of the trade, costumes as well as customs. In them one can see social history: a way of life that has gradually vanished or radically changed. Richard Ellis has left us a legacy of a Malta that many of us do not know and have never seen but which we should not be allowed to forget," Dr Fenech said.

The book was designed by photographer, artist and designer Patrick Fenech and published by BDL publishing. It was printed at Gutenberg Press Ltd.

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