Family Names

Friday, 14 April 2017

A to Z Challenge - M is for Mortuary Photo

Snippets from the life of Martha Sarah Ellis.

The photo below is of Martha Bartlett (who married Alfred Ellis) in London, England, daughter of Reuben Bartlett & Martha nee Moon. Martha Bartlett is also the mother Martha Sarah Ellis. Martha’s mother died at the age of 40 on 2nd September 1880, at home their home 245 St Georges Rd, Surrey, when Martha was 10.[1]

Photographer throught to be Richard Ellis, Mortuary Photograph of Martha Ellis nee Bartlett circa 2 September 1880, Lurline Marshall's private photo collection an identical copy also held in Sandra Williamson's private photo collection.

The image of Martha’s mother has been handed down through the generations. The photo appears in two private photo collections, one collection belongs a descendant of Martha Sarah's sister, the other belongs to a descendant of Martha Sarah.  The girls each must have been given a copy of the photo when they left England in 1889.

Recently I have looked very closely at the photograph and it began to dawn on me that I was looking at a Mortuary photo, an image of a dead person.

So how did I notice this?

First is was the eyes and how emphasised the pupils were and very black.  Then I looked more closely at how her face was framed by her bonnet and the very large bow under her chin.  Then there was the lack of decoration in the backdrop.  There is something is a little off with the composition.  The bonnet and the bow almost encircle her face. The bonnet is almost blurred in its detail and the earring in her left ear also sits funny as though pushed forward.  The bow is stiff and does not wilt as one would expect.

So how did I discover that this cherished family heirloom was not what it seemed to be?

To examine the image more closely I blew it up and by doing so I have made the following observations
  • The eyes – appear to have added to the photo
  • The face seems to have been placed in the bonnet or somehow added and lacks the definition of the face
  • On careful examination, you can also see the splice lines where the eyes have been superimposed over the original (probably closed) eyes.

Martha’s father was Alfred Ellis(b.1842) who was one of 13 children.  Alfred’s younger brother was Richard, who eventually migrated to Malta with the Conroy family. In Malta, the Mr Conroy set up a photography studio, where Richard acted as an assistant until he opened his own studio nine years later.  “Richard Ellis’ initial commissions entailed taking photos of corpses, as families at the time would want a photo of their dead relatives for a keepsake.”

Conclusion – 

I believe this is a mortuary photo of my 2nd great-grandmother taken after she died.  Martha and her husband, Alfred, lived in London with their children, it is likely when Martha died in 1880 Alfred’s brother Richard created the mortuary photo as a keepsake for his brother.  Richard was a well-respected photographer in Malta who would have had the skills for such a task.  Alfred and his family were almost destitute at the time of Martha’s death and were using the surname of Lee, it would have been unlikely that Alfred would have been able to commission such fine work himself.

To Read more about Martha's life for articles previously posted for the A to Z Challenges click the Letters below:-

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z

 

Sources

[1] England and Wales, death certificate for Martha Lee, died 2 September 1880; citing 1d/.534/79, September quarter 1880, Camberwell registration district, St George Camberwell in the County of Surrey sub-district; General Register Office, Southport. 

"Business Today". 2016.Businesstoday.Com.Mt. Accessed July 4 2016. http://www.businesstoday.com.mt/2008/05/21/interview.html

http://britishphotohistory.ning.com/profiles/blogs/malta-the-richard-ellis

Ltd, Allied. 2016. "Richard Ellis: The Photography Collection". Times Of Malta. Accessed July 4 2016. http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20071211/local/richard-ellis-the-photography-collection.187958

19 comments:

  1. I never would have guessed it was a mortuary photo, although I knew such photos were common during that time. Now I want to go dig out all my family photos to see if I have one!

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    1. I had no idea either, and I'm wondering if my grandmother, Lillian's daughter-in-law realised? She kept that photo for years and never said anything when she gave it to me.
      Thanks for dropping by Carolyn.

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  2. Oh my goodness. What an interesting analysis of that photo. Go you!

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    1. Thanks Alex, your enthusiasm is greatly appreciated.

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  3. How clever of you to spot this as a mortuary photo. I would never have guessed either. The thing that struck me was I like her! She has a mysterious kind of look as if she's full of fun. Happy Easter! M is for Marketing Methods as you Build a Better Blog. #AtoZchallenge.

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    1. Thanks Shirley, love your blog have spent way too much time there learning about how to build a better blog. It's wonderful to know I'm not too old to learn new things.

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  4. If not for the caption, I would not have realized at first glance this was a mortuary photo. I have a similar one I was told was a "memorial photo" -- now I am going back for a closer look. She certainly was beautiful. So sad she died relatively young.

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    1. I have never heard of the term "memorial photo" for a mortuary photo. It would interesting to hear what you find when you go back and take a closer look. The term "memorial photo" makes it sound as though it is a picture on a headstone.

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  5. I had no idea! Wow...it's amazing to me that people wanted mortuary photos back then...and that they did such a good job of making them seem natural.

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    1. I suppose that photos were so expensive that many people didn't have them back then. But she died so young they must have been grateful for any memento. I would love to know if the girls themselves knew, they might have just thought it was a photo of their mother before she died.

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  6. Great discover that some of the facial features were super imposed. I have had to examine many family member's pictures in order to judge the time frame they were taken, but never pictures as old as this one.

    http://theglobaldig.blogspot.com/2017/04/m-is-for-for-martel-atozchallenge-via.html

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  7. I looked again at one of my photos and think it could be a mortuary photo. It says "went to rest Feb 18th 1904" under the picture. I can't send it on this comment box I don't think.

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  8. I have never heard of a mortuary photo. I do not even like bodies in caskets and lately none of the funerals I have attended had a body.

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    1. I hadn't heard of them either but there are whole websites dedicated to them if you google the term.

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  9. Her eyes are exactly what I saw in this picture. They look so alive. I have heard some cultures having the mortuary photo. Just that the concept is a bit creepy to me.

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    1. It does seem a bit creepy, but I suppose people grieve in different ways. And Martha probably wouldn't have remembered her mother's face if she hadn't had the photo to look at, she was only 10 when her mother died.

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  10. That photo is amazing. Your ancestor was a beauty. So sad she died so young.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by. It's always sad when people die young. It must have been hard for the family in those times

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