The Malta Independent 18 September 2021, Saturday

The artist who painted Malta: Edward Lear - Watercolours and words at Palazzo Falson

Noel Grima Sunday, 19 October 2014, 09:42 Last update: about 8 years ago

An exhibition entitled Edward Lear: Watercolours and Words opened at Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum in Mdina yesterday and will run until 4 January 2015. The exhibition has been organised by Palazzo Falson on behalf of Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, is guest-curated by John Varriano, Professor Emeritus of Art History at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, who yesterday delivered a lecture on Edward Lear and who is also the author of a forthcoming book, to be published by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, on Edward Lear in Malta. 

Lear is, unfortunately, known in English literature as the author of nonsense verse but he actually considered himself to be an artist. He had a very complex personality and exhibited all the traits of a person with obsessive compulsive disorder. It is symptomatic that he wrote no fewer than 30 volumes of diaries from 1858 to 1888, when he died, volumes that were only recently deciphered and published. Each day has a description of what he had for breakfast, how the weather was, how many epileptic seizures he had that day and what he spent, in minute detail.

According to Wikipedia, Lear's most fervent and painful friendship involved Franklin Lushington. He met the young barrister in Malta in 1849 and then toured southern Greece with him. Lear developed an undoubtedly homosexual passion for Lushington that he did not reciprocate. Although they remained friends for almost 40 years, until Lear's death, the disparity of their feelings for one another constantly tormented Lear. Indeed, none of Lear's attempts at male companionship were successful; the very intensity of Lear's affections seemingly doomed the relationships.

The closest he came to marriage with a woman was two proposals, both to the same person 46 years his junior, which were not accepted. For companions he relied instead on friends and correspondents, and especially, during later life, on his Albanian Souliote chef, Giorgis, a faithful friend and, as Lear complained, a thoroughly unsatisfactory chef. Another trusted companion in Sanremo was his cat, Foss, who died in 1886 and was buried with some ceremony in a garden at Villa Tennyson.

Lear was known to introduce himself with a long pseudonym: "Mr Abebika kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto phashyph" or "Chakonoton the Cozovex Dossi Fossi Sini Tomentilla Coronilla Polentilla Battledore & Shuttlecock Derry down Derry Dumps" which he based on Aldiborontiphoskyphorniostikos.

He arrived in Malta for the first time in December 1865, from Marseille, on a ticket bought for £10. He came seven or eight times in all, always in winter and often for just a few days. Thirty-five of his views of Malta have been sold at auctions since 1979, and 12 of them are at Yale.

Edward Lear was a man of many talents: a painter of natural history, especially birds; four books of nonsense verse, and six volumes of travel descriptions, mostly his diary for his travels rehashed.

As an artist, he painted thousands of watercolours: there are no less than 3,700 watercolours by him at Massachusetts University.

Of his views of Malta, his watercolour of Bingemma from 1854 was eventually sold by Christie's. A view of Senglea from the Upper Barrakka, 1862, is in a Liverpool gallery. The exhibition has a watercolour of Senglea from 1862, also painted at the Upper Barrakka, his favourite place.

From 1865 to 1866, he rented a house at 9, Via Torri, Sliema but the views of Manoel Island and Valletta he had then have been today obliterated by development. A view from Sliema is in the Houghton Library.

Obsessive as he was, he would note the time of painting, the weather and even make notes in pencil what exact colour he would later fill in.

It is estimated that he painted no fewer than 300 watercolours while he was in Malta, but then painted over some of them when he went back to London. For the first three months he was in Malta, he was kept busy completing a commission of views of Venice.

He would walk everywhere, with his faithful servant carrying his necessities. Sometimes he would hire a calesse, and in his diary he noted how he had bargained down the price. Once, he dismissed the cab at Mdina and walked the rest of the way to Fomm ir-Rih where he was to paint one of his most famous paintings.

The omnibus was introduced to Malta in 1856 and Lear used it only once - from Sliema to the boat that was to take him to Gozo. He was definitely not amused when he and his fellow travellers were ordered to dismount on steep hills.

Those were also the years when photography was introduced to Malta and Lear himself bought a camera to help him in his painting, but he sold it a year later.

He was unlucky in his sales: he held an exhibition at the Via Torri house and some 50 people visited (and countless dogs) but no one bought anything. He used to move in British military and naval circles but even here he was unfortunate in sales.

The exhibition also includes scenes of the Grand Harbour, Ghar Hasan, Marsamxett and St Paul's Bay.

He was very sarcastic in his writings and diaries about Malta, which he saw as without trees and with many walls, but he loved Gozo where he stayed for 10 days from 16 to 23 March 1868. A view of Xlendi forms part of the exhibition, while one of Rabat is at the National Museum of Fine Arts. Of particular note is a view of Ghajnsielem at the exhibition while the whereabouts of a painting of Ta' Cenc is unknown.



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