The present panoramic watercolour of Valletta by Edward Lear is based on a study that he made while staying on Malta between December 1865 and April 1866, during the seventh of eight visits to the island. The study (which sold at a London auction in 2011) was, according to Lear’s inscription, made on ‘7 Feby 1866’ between ‘5 pm’ and ‘5.30’. The view looks eastwards across Marsamxett Harbour to the Maltese capital, with, from left to right: Fort Tigné on Dragut Point; Manouel Island, with its hospital, in the harbour; and, in Valletta itself, the tall tower of the Anglican pro-cathedral of St Paul, and the shorter towers of the Roman Catholic cathedral of St John, the latter peaking above St Michael’s bastion and its two (now demolished) windmills, which were used to grind gunpowder.
Lear made his first trip to Malta in 1848, when he made a brief stop on his way from Italy to Greece, while his last was in December 1866, when he stayed for an afternoon on his way to Egypt. From 1814, Malta had been ruled by a British military Governor, and, in Spring 1849, Lear stayed with Henry Lushington, who was then Chief Secretary to the Government of Malta. Through him, Lear met his younger brother, Franklin, and with him ‘established a lasting and important friendship’ (Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear 1812-1888, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1985, page 199). It is perhaps because of this friendship that he once described Malta as ‘that much beloved place’ (in a letter to Chichester Forstescue of 29 May 1862, published in Lady Strachey (ed), The Letters of Edward Lear, London: T Fisher Unwin, 1907, pages 243-44).
In December 1865, Lear went to Malta ‘largely to see’ his friends ‘Evelyn Baring [Lord Cromer] and Sir Henry Storks, who had been Governor there since 1864, and was furious to find that they had left two days earlier’ (Jenny Uglow, Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense, London: Faber & Faber, 2017, page 339). He took a house three miles from Valletta, at 9 Stradi Torri [Tower St], Sliema, with his servant, Giorgio Cocali, as his principal companion. Apart from a brief visit to Gozo, the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago, he remained on Malta for almost three months. While it proved to be such ‘a sad and lonely winter’ that ‘the island ceased to have any charm for him’ (Vivien Noakes, op cit, page 116), he worked as hard as ever, producing vividly detailed drawings that provided the basis for such scintillating watercolours as the present one.