Early photographs of interiors of buildings in Malta, especially private homes, turn out to be relatively rare. One reason for this may be that, up to the first quarter of the 20th century, photography then relied on slow, light-sensitive emulsion and required abundant light, available only outdoors or, alternatively, long exposures by a camera stabilised on a tripod. Another reason may be the reluctance to open to public gaze what most consider essentially private spaces.
This scarcity becomes a bane for the social historian. We hardly know how houses were furnished and decorated, be they workmen’s, bourgeois, professionals, merchants or the well-to-do.
If one were to generalise from the scant material available, what predominated in middle class homes in Victorian and Edwardian times was clutter. Too much of everything, everywhere, a sort of horror vacui was believed to translate into a paradigm of success, of affluence, of avant garde good taste. The imperative seems to have been – impress the visitor. If you have it, flaunt it.
“What predominated in middle class homes in Victorian and Edwardian times was clutter”
This shift from moderation to ostentation came about with the Victorian Industrial Revolution, a period in which some of the rich got richer and the poor often ended captive to squalor. Before that, wealth mostly gravitated towards those who were used to it and were coached how to handle it discreetly, as good upbringing was meant to walk hand in hand with good taste. With the explosion of monies divorced from manners, the nouveau discovered a new aesthetics: from sweat-shop to over-the-top.
The shortage of photographs of interiors cuts across the board – from private homes, to auberges, from clubs to hotels, from colleges to convents. Rarely do interiors feature in postcards; they mostly come from low-circulation photographs.
All photos from the author’s collection.
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