Artistic scenario in early British Malta by Lisa Gwenn Baldacchino –

final cover sleeveThe makings of an artist.

We often look at the finished product – the installation, the painting, the sculpture, the form – forgetting to trace the trajectory that brought the creative process to fruition.

Artistic training, whether formal or informal, should not be overlooked, nor underestimated. And this is precisely what artist, educator and author Hilary Spiteri is bringing to the fore in his publication Academic Artistic Training in Early British Malta being presented at this year’s Malta Book Fair.

Ahead of the presentation of his publication, Mr Spiteri shared some thoughts concerning his research, his choice of subject and context.

“Way back, as a student I recall attending a conference at the Old University Building in Valletta. It was then I came across part of the collection of classical plaster casts exhibited in the corridors leading to the Aula Magna. It was love at first sight!”

Soon after, he was to submit a proposal for a Master’s degree at the University of Malta. After showing interest in the subject and discussing the matter with History of Art head of department Mario Buhagiar, it was decided that he would focus on a chronological and socio-political artistic understanding of the context in Malta during the early 19th century under the newly-established British rule. “This was much needed, especially to bridge Malta’s glorious past under the Order of St John and the newly-set colonisation brought forward by the British.”

The purpose of this publication is to contribute as a comprehensive study of academic training and academic artistic production in Malta during the first half of the 19th century. “This is the first publication of its kind to broaden and adjust our perspective of the artistic scenario of early British Malta and to show how, in spite of the decline in official patronage, the University, under the enlightened direction of Mgr Caruana, succeeded in providing Malta with a respectable art academy. This was not an anticlimax but a new beginning and a benchmark development in Maltese Art History.”

The book summarises the research conducted by Mr Spiteri for his MA, however, he has re-assessed and amplified some areas of my research, especially the critical analysis provided on the collection of 19th century drawings present at the National Museum of Fine Arts (NMFA) while simultaneously citing reports related to the University of Literature and education in Malta during the first half of the 19th century. He explains how, originally, he had no pretension of featuring any stunning discoveries in his account. However, “Thanks to the help of Theresa Vella and the late Dennis Vella (at the time curators of the NMFA), I came across an invaluable collection of 19th century drawings present at the museum… I believe that this was a major discovery in assessing academic 19th century art in Malta. I strongly affirm that this collection is to be listed as a national treasure.”

This publication also presents a thorough research of 19th primary sources. This resulted in the unearthing of a number of practices adopted at the University of Literature at the time. The documents reveal the establishment of the Malta School of Design, its pedagogical programme and its didactic resources. During the process, Mr Spiteri also encountered some very interesting documents affirming the establishment of a life class under the tuition of artist Michele Busuttil. “This was a 19th century milestone in Malta considering the rigid religious conservative attitude prevailing at the time,” he explained.

“I also ought to mention a very important report written by Canon Emmanuele Rosignaud in 1839, preserved at the Malta National Archives, which I brought to light. This report offers an outstanding scientific account of the education in Malta during the first half of the 19th century.”

Mr Spiteri consequently explains how this publication bridges Malta’s Knights period and the British imprint on the islands: “This scarcely-researched period has drawn the attention of a number of art historians, but most of their writings were limited to a general overview, due to the lacunae present in most of the public archives. The merit of the publication thus lies in a much needed attempt to broaden and adjust our perspective of the artistic scenario of early British Malta.” Mr Spiteri hopes that his publication will mark the beginning of a series of studies featuring Malta’s 19th century academic artistic training and the art being produced at the time. “My intention is to pursue in studying this artistic period in depth thereby contributing to the enrichment of art history in Malta.”

Presently, Mr Spiteri is dedicating his time to promoting his book locally and internationally.

Meanwhile, as an educator, he is driven by the love and passion to acquire knowledge about his country’s artistic identity, availing himself to further research the ample grounds which this field of study offers. His profession on the other hand together with his artistic activity and production compliment his research and embody his fulfilment.


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