Edward Lear in Malta

I wrote the review below exactly one year ago for a newsletter of the Edward Lear Society that never appeared. Even though it is too late to visit the exhibition, you may still be able to order the book: it contains the full text (but not the dinner-table maps) of Edward Lear’s diary during his 1865-1866 stay in Malta.

I take this opportunity to announce that I will be resuming posting the Diaries in the next two or three days: since they are available in Varriano’s book until the end of March 1866, I’ll try to cover the missing months, from November 1864 (when I had to stop) to December 1865, and hopefully will resume the 150-year delayed publishing at the beginning of next April.


Since the success of the 2009 exhibition on Edward Lear’s tours of Ireland and the Lakes in 1835 and 1836, held in the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere, The Lake District, in north-west England, studies on Lear as an artist have tended to focus on his visits to specific locations. Sometimes Lear’s name has been used as a basis for a discussion of the history of an area and the conditions of its inhabitants around the time of the painter’s tour, as for instance in Giuseppe Macrì’s recent Il tempo, il viaggio e lo spirito negli inediti di Edward Lear in Calabria (Reggio Calabria: Laruffa, 2012).

This is not the case with John Varriano’s  excellent volume on Edward Lear in Malta, whose publication by the Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti was timed to coincide with the opening of an exhibition of Lear’s Maltese watercolours at Palazzo Falson from 18 October 2014 to 4 January 2015: Edward Lear: Watercolours and Words. The book provides a list of all known pictures painted by Lear while on the island, with well-printed, though generally rather small reproductions of those the author was able to locate. The catalogue is organized around extensive transcriptions of relevant passages from Lear’s letters and diaries, although it seems Varriano did not have access to Lear’s unpublished letters to his sister Ann and so missed some relating to Malta. The checklist at the end of the book, which follows Lear’s own numbering, includes over 300 items, many of which cannot be located or identified at present.

Varriano’s “Introduction” is especially skilful in the formal analysis of Lear’s plein air drawings. The watercolours are discussed in the context of the production of other painters working in Malta at the same time ― Michele Bellanti and Giovanni Schranz ― as well as in relation to the tradition of Samuel Prout’s and David Roberts’s “tinted drawings,” in which “the line typically defines formal boundaries with the colour washes remaining secondary.”  More questionable is perhaps Varriano’s definition of James Duffield Harding as a painter who “followed in his [Lear’s] steps,” when Lear is known to have been deeply influenced by Duffield’s manual, Elementary Art; or, the Use of the Lead Pencil Advocated and Explained (1834). However, it would certainly be hard to take issue with the author’s conclusion that Lear’s watercolours “remain a unique hybrid of the Romantic sensibility that attracted him to the poetics of Tennyson, and the earlier, more clear-headed English documentary tradition.”

The introduction also provides an overview of Lear’s visits to Malta, listing a total of seven, most of them just for a few days while sailing to other destinations. Varriano misses the eighth, on 14 December 1866: while he was on his way to Egypt, Lear only stayed an afternoon, but it was quite busy according to the diary entry:

 […] 10. walk deck, Lovely morning. 11. Gozo in full sight. Odd indeed to see places, formerly so uninteresting, now so accurately known, Nadur, Rabats [sic] &c. (Short parenthetical  lunch ― Captn. Guning ― Mrs. G. Sutton’s nephew.) ― & lo! the Sliéma House! ― At 1.30 in harbour, & shortly in a boat & up to palace with one box & hat box. Weather ever lovely. Paolo. Peel ― fat & well. Legh, Major Deedes. At 3, with Peel to Genl. Ridleys ― “same one good soul.” Then P. & I walked out, & I called on H.T. Williams ― (out) ― Lady Houlton (Mrs. Xtian there ― all piny whiny ―) Mrs. Legh ― & Mrs. Goodeve, & Goff. Back at Palace by 6. Mrs. Williams amiably came. As I returned, it rained but I trust, no change of wind. Bowden came, a plenum. At 7. Peel. 7.30 ― Legh & Deedes ― dinner ― which the dinner & champagne ― O! Deedes is a nice kindly sort of man, but poor dear Leghs arguments! At 11 ― John Peel the good & kindly would see me to the boat, & Giuseppe the seal with a big coat ― into the ship. J. Peel is one of a 1000 ― & I grieve to see him only for a moment & no more. Yet, ἒτζι εἶναι [so it is]. ― Now that I am in this vast silent ship at midnight, how strange does this short Parenthesis of Malta life seem!

We also have John Peel’s version of this visit in a letter of 23 February 1867 to his younger brother Archibald, a good friend of Lear’s; the painter is presented in one of his dark moods, though ready to appreciate that champagne:

 Edwin [sic] Lear, when he passed through, dined with me; he was as usual somewhat melancholy, and foretold the death of his remaining relatives, several in number and his own total blindness and impecuniosity like Micawber; however he brightened up, and concealed a good deal of liquor about his person, he is now up the Nile, and I owe him a letter. (Recollections of Lady Georgiana Peel; Compiled by Her Daughter Ethel Peel. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1920. 239)

Peel had been Assistant Military Secretary to Sir Henry Storks, Governor of Malta since November 1864 and the real reason ― together with his A.D.C. Evelyn Baring ― behind Lear’s decision to spend the 1865-66 winter there. Unfortunately, “Sir Storky” and Baring had sailed to Jamaica to investigate the conduct of the Governor, John Eyre, two days before Lear’s arrival on 9 December 1865: “No greater bore could have occurred,” he wrote in his diary.

Lear had never really liked Malta, even though this was where, in February 1849, he first met Franklin Lushington ― to whom he would be deeply attached all his life ― and the 1865-66 stay only confirmed his first impression, as it had been expressed in a long unpublished letter to his sister Ann:

 Dumford’s Hotel, Valletta, Malta
April 9th., 1848.
My Dear Ann,
[…] Malta itself, is an island all over rock & sand & a little soil, & crammed in every crevice with people & houses. Valetta [sic] is the city ― but somehow one never thinks of any other name than Malta. Such a strange place as Valetta I certainly never did see ― & as a town it is perhaps as beautiful as any existing. The houses all look as if built yesterday ― of a beautiful cream coloured stone, with green or white or painted balconies stuck about in every possible corner. The streets have all capital trottoirs, & there is no dirt to be seen. […] All round the town & two harbours the lines of fortifications are most surprising ― you walk in labyrinths, & when you have got outside, it begins all over & over & over again. ― Zig zag ― zig zag ― up stairs & down stairs ― sharp corners & half moons, moats, drawbridges, bastions & towers till you feel as if built up in Valetta for life. As for the country, there is none; stone walls & stone houses & stone terraces for miles, & villages as far as you can see ― so that you may say that all Malta is a great heap of stone in the Mediterranean with a little ground here & there for cultivation. […] (Full letter.)

His next letter to Ann, of 19 April ― from which Varriano quotes ― is probably the best expression of Lear’s contradictory feelings on Malta: “I cannot remember to have left any place with so much regret after so short a stay in it … But I could not live at Malta ― there is hardly a bit of green in the whole island ― a hot sandstone, wall, & bright white houses are all you can see from the highest places…”

John Varriano’s book is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature dealing with Edward Lear’s travels and, notwithstanding some omissions, will no doubt remain the standard treatment of his connection to Malta for several years.

On Lear and Malta here at the Blog of Bosh, and recently: Edward Lear in Gozo.

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2 Responses to Edward Lear in Malta

  1. Pingback: Edward Lear’s Diaries Blog News | A Blog of Bosh

  2. Pingback: Here We Are Again! | Edward Lear's Diaries

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