The Malta Independent 18 May 2021, Tuesday

Appreciation - John Borg Manduca

Sunday, 21 February 2021, 07:43 Last update: about 4 months ago

At the loss of a much loved family member and longtime friend in a sadness beyond sentience, one mourns in a sorrow that cannot be spoken. Only the recollection of the now unwoven threads of shared memories provides some form of consolation. My initial encounter with John was in our shared St Edward’s College days. John was my house captain and prefect. Already in adolescence we shared a mutual respect and esteem for each other; little knowing that our lives were later to be interlaced and intertwined, and that his sister Myriam would become my cherished and beloved wife.


After his tutelage at the Military College of Sandhurst he focused mainly on his military career, and later after his marriage to Josephine, one of the most charming and ebullient personalities one could encounter, postings abroad followed, and he rose to the rank of Major. Yet, the kernel of what later was to make him an outstanding artist was already seeded. During his twenty seven years of military service, he was what one could term a ‘Sunday Artist’, although already highly productive and participating in both solo and collective exhibitions.

Soon, what was a sideline hobby manifested itself into a professional missionary vocation. Moving from brush to palette knife, as a fully-fledged artist he focused on renditions of his native xanthic island’s townscapes and their surrounding cerulean seas, thematics which soon were to become his trademark.

With deft strokes of his palette knife he elevated the sun-ignited stones and shadowed streets of the Maltese architectural typology to a level of poetic reverie. His canvases of the island’s saffron built-forms and the dancing of their shadows rendered him a kaleidoscopic alchemist. It was however, in his depiction of the multifarious moods of the sea, at times calm, still, and moonlit in motionless serenity, or more so in their vertiginous vigour with undulating wrathful waves that John manifested himself as a master. When painting the anger of the sea John handled his palette as a jazz musician handles his drumsticks.

Many a time he renounced his colourful palette to reduce his images to stark nigrescent black tones; it was then that palette knife turned magician’s wand. Apart from images of oil rigs and local fishing boats, the prize works of this series were those John prepared to illustrate the Scottish concrete-poet-artist Ian Hamilton Finlay’s poetic verbal allegories. The twining of Finlay’s verbal aphorisms and John’s visual delineations on the thematics of land and sea war machines produced one of the most potent metaphorical amalgamations of word and image. A number of these works form part of the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Scotland.

I remain proud and privileged to have initiated the publication and provided the critical essay to John’s book ‘The Palette’ (Libria Italy 2004) which apart from my own, carried texts by Finlay himself and the ubiquitous Scottish art-impresario Richard Demarco. The book remains an apt tribute to a skillful artist who produced a significant and important body of work. 

While John will surely be remembered for his pictorial legacy of our island’s scenography, he will above all be held in memory for his exceptional personal qualities. Elegant in attire, distinguished in presence, generous and immaculately mannered, he was the paragon gentleman. Always courteous, kind, tender and gentle, John was truly an honourable man. I am sure, for all who loved and knew him he leaves a mnemonic luminous afterglow, and that in the Heavenly mansions, where he now surely dwells, he will be handed a Divine palette, to render the paradisiacal seascapes of Heaven.


Richard England


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