by Warren Bugeja and Nicoline Sagona

Haunted by Gozo’s striking beauty, British artist and illustrator Edward Lear managed to sketch over 80 drawings en plein air, in less than eight days. Escaping the harsh British winter for health reasons, Lear was in Gozo for just one week, from Friday 16 till Friday 23 March 1866. The island clearly left the artist lost for words. Well known for his literary nonsense in poetry and prose and his limericks, Lear coined the terms ‘pomskizillious’ and ‘gromphibberous’,  to describe the island’s scenery,  ‘being as no words can describe its magnificence.’  

Accompanied by his servant Giorgio Kokali and buffeted by the island’s strong winds, Lear combed the Gozitan countryside, often walking between fifteen and twenty miles each day. He kept a journal, and we can map his daily walks around Gozo from his sketches.  Lear numbered his sketches and wrote the date and time, apart from the location and other notes.  The artist’s first impression of Gozo -after having walked from Mġarr to Rabat- was that “Gozo is evidently full of picturesque views, the hills being so well drawn and separate. Rabato……is like Athens – really immensely beautiful in its way”.

Walking up from Xlendi to Sannat via Munxar one winter afternoon, Lear decided to immortalise this view of Rabat captured as the fading sunlight burnished the ‘buildings all white and gold’ and the ‘crimson clover’ washed in a blush of mauve. Captured from Sannat, one can make out distinct landmarks, including the Citadel fortifications, the aqueduct and Ta’ Ġordan lighthouse in the far distance. 

This drawing was acquired by Heritage Malta from Christie’s for the Gozo Museum collection in 2021 and came from a private overseas collection.  It was Nicoline Sagona’s artefact of choice when asked to single out an item from the national collection for Heritage Malta’s HMTV series ‘Treasure to Meet You’. “Lear’s works are snapshots of beautiful spots around the island, imbued with romantic feeling,” Sagona, Senior Curator for Gozo’s Museums and Sites, enthuses. “Edward Lear is one of my favourite 19th-century artists.  I am intrigued by artists and travellers of the 18th and 19th centuries, and I find their travelogues and sketches of the places they visited particularly enchanting. Such travels to southern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East were very fashionable in the 19th century and stemmed from the notion of the Grand Tour, which came earlier.  Being Gozitan, I am obviously attracted to artists and writers who visited Gozo in particular,” she adds.

The Rabato view is numbered 203.  Drawing No. 200 is a view of Xlendi, also in the national collection.  “Lear sketched it at 11.30 am on the same day, so it is safe to assume that he walked up from Xlendi to Sannat as by 5.30 pm he was in this particular spot looking towards Rabat, where he was residing in a hotel,” Nicoline explains. “Lear had a particular eye for detail and sketched very quickly.  Apart from the date and time annotations, the artist would write down notes indicating the colours of the skies, the buildings and the meadows so that he would be able to add wash and highlights when back home or at his lodging.” Lear sketched in pencil on location. Later he would go over the pencil markings with a dark brown ink pen, add the washes in watercolour and finish off (in this case) with highlights in white gouache.

The view of Rabato brings the number of Gozo landscapes sketched by Edward Lear in Heritage Malta’s possession up to five. Other views of Malta painted by Lear are on display in the MUŻA collection. The rest are dispersed in collections around the world.

Watch the feature here in English or Maltese

Treasure to Meet You’ is uploaded to Heritage Malta’s Facebook page every fortnight at 19:00. The intimate series consists of short features in both English and Maltese versions. Each week, viewers get to meet one of our dedicated curators, who were asked to select an artefact or feature from the National Collection to which they are particularly attached.

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