State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 56 Spring 1995


Thomas Ellis & Co.: Photographers to the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866–67

The Picture Collection holds some 33 substantially differing views of the interior of the exhibition buildings during the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866–67. These photographs were taken by Thomas Ellis & Co., who had been appointed by the Commissioners as photographers to the exhibition.1 The buildings themselves, located behind the Public Library, occupied much of the whole block with the annexe extending back to Russell Street.2 The photographs provide a valuable addition to the other documentary evidence relating to this exhibition in that they show, sometimes in great detail, the general layout and some of the vast array of products included in this eclectic trade show. They also contribute to our knowledge of the fabric of the exhibition buildings which remained on the site for over 40 years.
Thomas Ellis & Co. are listed in Melbourne directories as occupying premises in Victoria Parade, Fitzroy between 1866 and 1868. They used their status as the appointed exhibition photographers to promote their business and advertised the fact on the verso of their cartes-de-visite.3 Ellis & Co. displayed their photographs for sale in the Fine Arts Compartment4: their display can be seen clearly in several of the photographs. Whilst these exhibition photographs were unsuccessful in competition, Ellis's untouched portraits, also displayed, gained an honorable mention.5
The Library does not own any other sets of professional photographs of this exhibition. Other quality pictorial representations of the exhibition are confined to wood engravings in the illustrated newspapers against which these photographs provide a useful contrast. Many of the engravings show the exhibition areas to be spacious and uncluttered which, as evidenced by the photographs, was clearly not the case.
The photographs received at least one favourable contemporary review, apart from that of the Commissioners,6 from an unidentified amateur photographer and occasional photography writer, Sol, who, in The Australian monthly magazine, states that “… we have never seen finer interiors, and we trust that they will meet with that success which the excellence of their productions merits.”7 Ellis & Co. concentrated their efforts in photographing the exhibits themselves, rather than the buildings. The chairman of the jurors for the photographic class, James Smith, who was also an art critic for The Argus, lamented that “no effectual steps have been taken to secure a series of firstclass photographs of the interior of the Exhibition-building itself, so as to give strangers at a distance a more satisfactory idea of the edifice and its content.”8 Nevertheless, some parts of the buildings are covered quite well.
Most of the photographs appear to have been taken some time after the opening of the exhibition. We know this because the imposing gold column, representing the amount of gold taken from Victorian gold mines in the fifteen years prior to the exhibition, cannot be seen in the Great Hall. This pyramid, exhibited by the Victorian Commissioners, was removed three weeks after the opening and sent to Paris for the Exposition Universelle of 1867 “to enlighten the Parisians.”9 The gold column was replaced by a low triangular-based case of samples of Victorian gold which can be seen clearly in most of the photographs of the Great Hall. Similarly, many of the exhibits in the Queensland Court were sent to Paris and one photograph of this court depicts a very bare display indeed.
The photographs' coverage of the exhibits themselves is very incomplete. The emphasis is on the Great Hall, which is represented in 21 different views. Particularly prominent in these photographs are the Borough and Shire Council banners and photographs of Victorian country towns, specially commissioned for the exhibition and disparagingly referred to by one reviewer of the Picture Gallery as “almost

1866–7 Intercolonial Exhibition, Melbourne — view of the central uisle of the Great Hall looking south (LTAEF 67 f.12)

entirely on local subjects, and therefore only locally interesting” and “mere trade advertisements.”10 Other photographs show the Fine Arts Compartment featuring the paintings rather than the prints and photographs; the Machine Room with its upper walls adorned with plaster copies of the Elgin marbles, and the room proper, housing engines, working machinery (including three printing presses), samples of printing, photographs and drawings: the Octagon or Rotunda featuring ornamental arts such as jewellery and silverwork, sculpture (including figures and medallions), and, very prominently, a case of paper flowers: the Annexe in which carriages were the predominant exhibit; and the South Quadrangle which had been landscaped and which included bronze figures of deer surrounding a marble fountain.
The wing of the Annexe, which housed mainly agricultural implements, is not represented in the photographs, nor is the North Quadrangle or the outside spaces generally, such as the large guns, or the tents constructed for the flower show held during the exhibition, nor Messrs Robinson and Co.'s windmill.
The Official record contains a lengthy essay in the form of a walk-through guide to all parts of the exhibition buildings describing the major exhibits in great detail.11 It is generally an uncritical account, narrated in an almost breathless tone, but, when read in conjunction with the photographs, the ground plan of the buildings and the catalogue of exhibits, it provides the reader with a very good impression of the exhibition.
Kirstie McRobert
Librarian in the Research Section of
the La Trobe Library


Intercolonial Exhibition, 1866: official catalogue. 2nd edn, Melbourne, Blundell & Ford, [1866?], p. 103.


See “Ground plan of the Intercolonial Exhibition 1866–67”, Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, Melbourne, 1866–67: official record. Melbourne, Blundell & Co. printers. 1867, opp. title page.


Only one carte is owned by the Library, an unidentified portrait, H29121.


Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, Melbourne, 1866–67: official record, op.cit., p. 156.


Intercolonial Exhibition 1866: awards of the jurors. Melbourne, Printed for the Commissioners by Blundell & Co. [1866?], p. 36.


Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, Melbourne, 1866–67: official record, op.cit. p. 148.


Sol, ‘A wanderer among the photographic views at the Intercolonial Exhibition’, The Australian monthly magazine vol. 3, no. 17, January 1867, pp. 364–5.


Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, Melbourne, 1866–67: official record, op.cit. pp. 350–1.


Ibid. p. 135.


The Australasian 17 November, 1866, p. 1031.


‘Guide to the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866–7’, Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, Melbourne, 1866–67: official record, op.cit. pp. 127–57.