Fred Ellis was born in England and trained at the Halifax School of Art, but spent most of his life teaching art in New Zealand. He was Roy’s principal designer from about c.1948 until 1961, designing over 50 church windows for Miller Studios.
Designing stained glass windows was his particular passion, but Fred had many skills as recorded in his 1961 obituary in the Wellington Evening Post:
‘The Late Mr. Fred V Ellis – Talented Artist’s Many Qualities … Gifted portrait painter, oil and watercolour landscape artist, etcher, sculptor, stained-glass designer, highly skilled pianist, scholar in classical literature, notable athlete, boxer and deerstalker…’ A love of motorcycling can be added to the list.
After World War 1 Fred resumed his artistic studies at the Royal College of Art in London where he studied etching and engraving and specialised in stained glass design and execution. Fred earned an Associateship of the Royal College of Art (ARCA) on 16 July 1920, and gained a travelling scholarship, allowing him to visit art centres and churches in France and Italy. Fred was suffering from the effects of gas warfare in France and was advised to come to New Zealand; in 1922 he took the role of craft master at the Dunedin School of Art.
In 1930 he obtained a full-time teaching position at the Wellington School of Art and spent the next three decades teaching drawing, life drawing, design, painting, etching, anatomy and stained glass design. Fred was made Head of Department in 1939 and kept that position until he resigned in 1959 so he could work on stained glass design full-time.
The elaborate style of window that Fred Ellis designed in New Zealand was based on his training in England and he did not progress to more modern styles. When Victoria University in Wellington celebrated its 25th silver jubilee in 1924, a large World War 1 Memorial Window was designed by Fred Ellis and placed in the Library in the Hunter Building.
After World War 2, Roy Miller began to emerge as the leading producer of stained glass windows in New Zealand, using Fred as his designer in the 1950s. One of New Zealand’s most accomplished designers, Fred left a legacy of at least 50 stained glass windows around the country.
Several of his students went on to have very successful art careers, in particular, Beverley Shore Bennett, who went on to become Roy Miller’s main designer during the 1970s decade.
Fred, who was seldom seen without a cigarette in his mouth, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died on 8 November 1961.