Richard Cole was a cartoonist for The Times, The Daily Telegraph, CBS and Channel 4 News, amongst others, in the time-honoured, cross-hatched style of David Levine. His drawing of the then Labour Prime Minister of Malta, Dom Mintoff in 1975 set him off on a journey, culminating in this book. When a government aide wanted to buy the original, depicting a Napoleonic Mintoff kicking a British bulldog off ‘his’ island, Cole exchanged it for a return air ticket to Malta the following year, courtesy of Air Malta, and after thirty-odd years, he returned to see how much it had changed. And changed it had, mainly on the Island of Gozo, with an enormous amount of urbanisation and redevelopment. He first returned in 2009, taking with him the sketches he had done on his first visit, and, on revisiting Independence Square in Victoria on Gozo, he started drawing the Church of St James the Greater, which stood at one end of the tree-lined square. He could not work out why the church was so different from the one he had sketched all those years before, thinking his memory was playing tricks, or he was in the wrong square. After enquiring of the locals, he established that while excavating the crypt to install a restaurant, the whole building collapsed and a new one was built in its place. Similarly, he re-visited Tapies Bar in St Francis Square and was confounded to find that it had changed very much from his original crayon sketch. He discovered that it had been demolished and rebuilt to enlarge the square, with the ornate 19th century church of St Francis at the east end. Tapie’s Bar was, in fact, a nickname for the owner, in whose family it had been for a hundred years, meaning, quite simply, pie maker.
Cole draws ably with just a pencil, as exemplified by the endpapers, and, in some of his sketches done in 1975, in the manner of, say, Paul Hogarth, but with a heavier line and a stricter architectural discipline, and he is still tempted to caricature his subjects, so old habits die hard. He tackles landscapes and townscapes in crayon, watercolour, gouache and, occasionally, oils, which he would work on in the studio, but he prefers to paint en plein air, and soak up the atmosphere of the fish market, a jazz concert at the Bridge Bar in Valletta, the interior of a vintage bus or the regattas held in Valetta Harbour. He points out in his informative and chatty way, that other British artists had been seduced by Malta’s raw beauty and historic sites, including Edward Lear, who did hundreds of charming watercolours, and the essentially English cartoonist, H M Bateman, who retired to Mgarr in Gozo in 1964 to paint landscapes in oils on paper. A year later, the English abstract painter Victor Pasmore moved to Gudja, and a gallery dedicated to his work opened in Valetta. Allegedly, he moved there because of the landscape, the architecture, the warm, sunny weather, and the commonality of the English language. When asked whether any of these had an influence on his work, he simply replied, ‘No!’
Malta & Gozo: An Artist’s View
By Richard Cole