The Malta Independent 19 June 2019, Wednesday

He came, he saw… and here’s a book about it

Marika Azzopardi Tuesday, 11 June 2019, 12:33 Last update: about 8 days ago

I first met Richard Cole in 2009 when I visited an exhibition of his paintings in Malta. Shortly afterwards, in 2012, I reviewed his book Portrait of a French Village, wherein he recounted and illustrated his experience of a small country locality in France which he came to know well over the years.

Fast forward to 2019, after a number of years during which the artist and I communicated regularly about his new project, a book on Malta. A frequent visitor to the islands, he has always been enthralled by its unique character. And his connection with Malta came about quite perchance. It was a cartoon concerning Malta that landed him here in the distant year of 1975. Prepared for and published by the London Times newspaper, the cartoon showed Dom Mintoff being depicted "as Napolean kicking the British bulldog into the Mediterranean". The controversial cartoon did not land him in trouble, rather, it got him a free ride to the islands, and as he says... "so the fun began".

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The intention behind Malta & Gozo - an artist's view was namely to document the fun Cole had in experiencing and depicting Malta and Gozo over time, from the 70s to the present day. It wanted to show what impressed an Englishman in the 70s, what tantalised him about the islands, what enticed him about people's daily goings on and what remained imprinted in ink and paint. And then, in his later years, he decided to return, sketch and watercolour again and juxtapose the difference. Cole recalled places he visited back then and revisited them to find out what had changed, if at all.

In this book, Cole documents the changes with some amusement, at times with disappointment, but constantly with curiosity, great interest and much respect.

He writes candidly, a sort of journal-in-the-making alongside his drawings, recounting not just his experience of what he spotted on his walks and travels around the islands, but also recounting stories told to him by newly acquired friends along the way. It seems as if he is sharing his travel escapades with a good old friend, and indeed, it all works out seamlessly.

One can well imagine this tall lanky Englishman, standing very still in some inconspicuous corner, with pencil and sketchbook in hand, cartooning away. What he observed and documented is what most of us look at as we fly by in our cars, or rush about our daily goings on, giving little attention to the detail which he valiantly and ably spots, pick out and immortalises for posterity. A lot of what might seem humdrum everyday stuff to us "locals", is captured with photographic exactness. For instance, this Englishman had to stop and look twice at a priest dressed in full regalia, strutting across a village square in broad daylight with a little altar boy trotting behind, hot on his heels - definitely not a humdrum everyday apparition for this artist, rather a kind of peculiar "what on earth" moment.

The book is pictorial, filled to overfilling with images that titillate the observational skills of any newcomer to the islands, peppered by Cole's often amusing accounts and discoveries. Locals will probably smile in recognition of people and places, some known with familiarity. Having seen the book develop from its inception, I find myself reading over and again chapters such as The Last Miller with nostalgia, as I appreciate how Cole has managed to grab hold of national social memories and render them indelible for us to remember. This Englishman has given us a collection of accounts and images that speak of us, the Maltese, better than most history books do. It is a travelogue, a documentary, a reportage, all in one, and it has waited patiently through 44 years of change, to come to fruition. Now, we can sit back with this book to reconcile what came to be and what it was like before it happened.

'Malta & Gozo, an artist's view' by Richard Cole, is published by Miller Publications, and available at leading bookshops


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