Monday, 29 July 2013

Cornwall's Photographer: George Ellis

George Ellis at work
George Ellis moved to Bodmin with his wife Jessie on Sunday 3 September 1939, a date he'd always be able to recollect. The following morning he began work at the Bodmin-based Cornish Guardian, as the paper’s staff photographer. George had trained as an engineer but hoping to turn his hobby into a livelihood, had left his job to become a press photographer.

Early in life George had many adventures; he crossed the Atlantic in a Moravian Missionary windjammer, spending six months in Labrador with the Eskimos to record their way of life. Keen on deep-sea fishing, he made several long trips with his cameras to explore the fishing-grounds of the North Sea and the Arctic. Afterwards he gave talks about his experiences, illustrated with his photographs: ‘The Western Isles’, ‘A Trip to Labrador’, ‘Meet Mrs Eskimo’.

Bodmin 1943: Bob Hope entertains the troops
With a growing family though, the expeditions came to an end. George worked for the Guardian until the summer of 1940, but wartime paper rationing led to his redundancy. He became self-employed, and began to build up his own photographic business in Bodmin.

Throughout the war, George also served with the Royal Observer Corps at the Bodmin Beacon post known as S.3. When American troops arrived, he set up a small studio so the GIs could send home photographs of themselves with their Cornish girlfriends. George was one of the few press photographers with access to military establishments, notably the naval airfield at St Merryn.

He liked to be known as George W F Ellis, and styled himself Cornwall’s leading Press Photographer. Working from his premises at 4 St Nicholas Street, he contributed to the Guardian but supplied other newspapers too, including the Western Morning News, and magazines such as Women’s Own; most of his work was in black and white. George also printed calendars bearing local scenes, and started a lucrative line in post-cards carrying his images. They sold in thousands; many survive today as collectable items.

Cornish saffron buns: a mixed reception.
Though he tended to focus on mid-Cornwall, George also travelled widely across the Duchy. His camera faithfully captured village life: Young Farmers functions, baby shows, carnival queens, musical occasions, agricultural shows, wassailers. George loved traditional occasions, and for around 30 years attended the annual Shrove Tuesday hurling at St Columb Major, as well as Padstow’s May Day festivities. He covered local sporting fixtures and enjoyed weddings; images with large groups of people usually meant good sales, as often mementos were ordered by the subjects. Some of his more unusual assignments included a rat-catching session at Liskeard, a party for centenarian Mrs Alicia Tugwell, and a giant haddock.

Charlotte Dymond memorial, 1943
But as well as parochial happenings, he photographed some big events: the manhunt following Newquay’s murder in July 1958; the Royal Cornwall Shows; the Tamar road bridge under construction. George was interested in technology, and travelled to the Lizard as the Goonhilly satellite station was being commissioned in mid-1962. St Austell’s china clay industry and the Cornish railways also attracted his lens.

George’s work was generally of fine quality but sometimes he was a little snap-happy. In his archives, some rural and shoreline scenes occur again and again; it seems he cherished certain views which he felt compelled to revisit. Numerous images, particularly the topographical, can’t be dated accurately because there are no people, cars or buildings to suggest when they were taken. A few show human failing; like everyone else, occasionally George would produce blurred, wobbly or lop-sided images, heads or feet missing. But he kept them all.

When the chance arose, George photographed royalty and the famous. Among them were King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, together with Princess Elizabeth, when they visited Bodmin during the summer of 1950; twelve years later he recorded the Queen Mother once more, at the official opening of the new Tamar Bridge. He also visited Fowey, where he snapped a resident whose lifetime of artistic work had been admired by millions: Mabel Lucie Attwell.

Winter at Jamaica Inn, 1950s
As he aged, George’s photographs concentrated more on central Cornwall, nearer his home. He officially retired in 1975 but worked until his eighties. In retirement he developed an interest in painting, and kept up his musical activities: singing, and playing the piano and organ. George died in October 1985.

Today though, thousands of his negatives are still with us, held by the Cornish Studies Library at Redruth. George’s records of his work have also survived, great hand-written ledgers organised with a generous dash of Byzantium. Frozen in time, these historic images of Cornwall exist today thanks to the constant enthusiasm of George Ellis, and his indefatigable camera.

1 comment:

Keith Solomon said...

George F W Ellis scooped the dramatic sinking of the US Merchant Ship, 'Flying Enterprise' after her cargo had shifted and the crew abandoned he except for the Captain, Carlson. Ellis chartered a light plane and flew out into the Atlantic and obtained startling photos which were circulated word wide. The rescue tug 'Turmoil' whose mate -Dancy - lept aboard the larger vessel to help secure a tow line.
George Ellis also recorded my family in our own home in Bodmin - circa 1946.

A very versatile lens-man.