HomeShoppingIn pictures: How were houses decorated a century ago in Malta?

In pictures: How were houses decorated a century ago in Malta?

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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.

Lord Strickland’s residence, Villa Bologna, Attard, in the 1920s.

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. 

A corridor in the Frederick Street back of Palazzo Spinola, Valletta, c 1930.

A corridor in the Frederick Street back of Palazzo Spinola, Valletta, c 1930.

Common area in St Aloysius’ College, Birkirkara, c. 1910.

Common area in St Aloysius’ College, Birkirkara, c. 1910.

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”

Sitting room in an unidentified Maltese house in the 1920s resembling an antiques dealer’s showroom.Sitting room in an unidentified Maltese house in the 1920s resembling an antiques dealer’s showroom.

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 mother of all clutter. A house in Sliema in the 1910s.The mother of all clutter. A house in Sliema in the 1910s.

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.

A lavish interior of an unidentified Maltese home in the 1920s.

A lavish interior of an unidentified Maltese home in the 1920s.

Room in a home in Tower Road, Sliema, c. 1910.

Room in a home in Tower Road, Sliema, c. 1910.

An interior of San Anton Palace, Attard, in the 1910s.

An interior of San Anton Palace, Attard, in the 1910s.

A tea party in a bourgeois Edwardian household.

A tea party in a bourgeois Edwardian household.

One of the state rooms in the Palace, Valletta, in Victorian times.

One of the state rooms in the Palace, Valletta, in Victorian times.

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