Byron’s Europe: Plate 12, Valletta Harbour, Malta

This is the fifteenth instalment of a tour through the Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron published between 1832 and 1834.  Here we enjoy a rest in Malta, a little Romance, and some timely musing on matters of Trade.

Valletta Harbour, Malta, 1832
Engraved by Edward Finden after a watercolour by J.M.W.Turner.
Etching and line engraving on steel, image 3 ¾ x 5 5/8 in (95 x 144 mm) on plate 6 13/16 x 9 1/4 ins (173 x 236 mm) on medium-weight, slightly textured [?machine-made] wove etching paper, slightly reddened with age, 11 ½ x 9 ins (291 x 229 mm).
Inscribed in lower margin, immediately below image left in small Roman; ‘Drawn by J.M.W.Turner R.A.’ and right, ‘Engraved by E. Finden.’ Titled in small open caps lower centre, ‘MALTA’. Publication line in small Roman below, ‘London. Published 1832, by J. Murray, & Sold by C.Tilt, 86, Fleet Street.’
Issued as Plate 12 of volume 1 (1833) of the three-volume bound edition of ‘Finden’s Landscape and Portrait Illustrations of Lord Byron’s Life and Works’ and issued to subscribers in Part 6, plate 1, 1832

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Byron made two visits to Malta. He arrived on 31 August 1809 after a two-week voyage from Gibraltar via Sardinia and Sicily. His ultimate objective was Istanbul. He stayed a little over two weeks and then continued to Greece. He spent the next twenty months away in the east, returning on his way home in May 1811. He secured a passage on the frigate HMS Volgate which sailed on 2 June and landed at Sheerness on 14 July.

On the way out, he appears to have passed most of his time besotted with a young woman. Mrs Charlotte Spencer Smith was twenty-five, something of an adventuress, and clearly very impressive to the twenty-one year old poet. He told his mother about all his romantic encounters: ‘since my arrival here I have had scarcely any other companion, I have found her very pretty, very accomplished, and extremely eccentric.’ He penned the poem ‘To Florence’ for her and mooned over her in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  Thomas Moore makes a significant episode out of her in his Life.

Constance Spencer Smith. Source; Peter Cochran website

The most vivid and direct report of the 1809 sojourn is that given in the diary of Bryon’s travelling companion, John Cam Hobhouse, transcribed in an excellent online scholarly edition by Peter Cochran. One of his companions de voyage was John Galt, who later incorporated an account of the journey and sojourn there in his Life of Byron [search ‘Malta’] published in 1830. Byron’s correspondence is also transcribed by Peter Cochran and contains several interesting reports of both the outward and return visits. The whole tour treated by Ian Strathcarron in his 2011 book ‘Joy Unconfined: Lord Byron’s Grand Tour Retoured’. The same author has a video – available on youtube – much of which was shot on location in Malta, recounting Byron’s 1811 visit.

Galt comments quite drily on Mrs Spencer Smith; saying that Byron was beguiled sufficiently into making her a present of a valuable yellow diamond ring. It’s perhaps just as well that he didn’t tell his mother about that since Byron admitted elsewhere that he had pledged never to part with it. Readers might enjoy investigating the liaison for themselves but our present theme is with the contribution of the engraving to European consciousness, rather than with Byron’s dalliance. It would nevertheless be interesting to learn what became of the ring, but that information has not readily presented itself.

Old Baker’s Street, Valetta, Malta.. Byron rented a house on the site to the left. It seems appropriate that the site is now occupied by a travel agent.

After a couple of days, Byron rented a house at 3 Strada di Forni. Cochran mis-transcribes this as ‘Strada di Torni’ but the Malta history website identifies the building as part of nos. 3-7 of the present Old Bakery Street [Forni (It.) = Bakery]. Sadly the building was destroyed by bombing in 1942 but the website has an old photograph. With his lame foot, Byron did not remember the streets of Valletta fondly. On his return visit in 1811, he composed a ‘Farewell to Malta’ in which he disburdened himself of numerous grievances, including:

Adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs!
(How surely he who mounts you swears!)

Byron goes to some lengths in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to avoid naming Malta directly, and treats it allusively as the erstwhile abode of the famous classical nymph Calypso and now the seat of his muse. The Findens do not appear to have been at all interested in Byron’s Maltese romancing as a subject for the Illustrations. There is no portrait of Mrs Spencer Smith, as perhaps one might have expected. Nor does the illustration that they commissioned from J.M.W.Turner makes any reference to the episode.

Turner had never been to Malta, and must have been supplied a sketch by some other artist, perhaps George Reinagle who supplied the sketch for Turner’s watercolour of Gibraltar. Nonetheless, this subject was one of the first to be commissioned. A letter from William Finden dated 6 October 1830 in the John Murray archive at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, documents the commission saying that ‘Mr Turner has undertaken to make the Drawings of Malta and Gibraltar from very fine sketches and I expect them immediately upon his return to Town’. Murray’s ledgers show that he paid £24.3.0 for the watercolour and the sketch, and sold them together when finished for £18.2.3. The original watercolour is now, happily, in Malta, having been bought in 1998 by HSBC Bank, Malta, and deposited on loan at the Malta National Museum.

Philip Farrugia Randon compiled a book-length treatment, ‘Turner’s Malta Watercolour’, to accompany the watercolour’s first exhibition in Malta in 2000. Watercolours can only be exhibited occasionally, so anyone interested in seeing it would be best advised to check accessibility with the Museum in advance of travelling.

Randon’s book thoroughly researches the context and content of Turner’s watercolour and the interested reader should seek it out. His work enables us to concentrate here on its significance in relation to the European perspective of the Illustrations as a whole. To judge from the timing, well over a year before the intended publication of the first plate in the series, securing a contribution by Turner to the project was a priority. In 1830 Turner was fifty-five and approaching the peak of his fame and influence. No-one had made a greater contribution to consciousness of place. As has been frequently noted on, the main strength of Turner’s art lies in its geographic understanding. That is both physical, geological, situational, meteorological, hydrographical and phenomenal, but also human, historical, relational, infrastructural, economic, and political. And all of those things are brought into play in this watercolour.

The subject is the Grand Harbour at Valletta seen from Ricasoli Point which guards the east flank of the harbour entrance.  At the centre of the composition we can see the open arcades of the Upper Barrakkaa [Military Barracks] and closing the composition to the right we can see the bulwark of the Lower Barrakka. To the left is Point St Angelo whose fort guarded the inner harbour. The houses of Valletta lie behind the bastions to the right.

It is perfectly possible to take views that show the Old City more prominently and a perusal of Watercolour World qives some idea of the variety of approaches that different artists have taken. The principal interest of Turner’s subject, however, as of many others, is the port and its bulwarks. The British Museum has one example from the eighteenth century that shows almost exactly the same view.

Louis Jean Desprez, View of the Grand Harbour, Valletta, Malta, 1778, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Valletta was above all a shipping hub. Its position hallway between Italy and Tunisia at the Mediterranean’s narrowest point, and halfway between the Straits of Gibraltar and the ports of Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia made it for all seafaring traders an absolutely vital hub in communications with the whole of the East. For Millennia trade goods came to the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle and Far East as far as India and China, and whoever controlled Malta could command a significant part of east-west maritime communication.

So Valletta had been fought over, conquered, brutalised, sacked, ‘protected’, exploited, starved, bribed, bombed, redeveloped and destroyed again throughout history. When the French seized it in 1798, the British saw a major threat to their Mediterranean navigation, so a fleet under the command of Lord Nelson laid siege and forced a capitulation and withdrawal in 1800. Britain then governed the island as a Protectorate, then from 1814 as a colony, until it finally achieved independence in 1964.

Defensive bulwarks impend over the water, protecting shipping of all kinds. The principal vessel is a splendid frigate, not specifically identified but presumably British. Its topsails are set, its pennant is flying, as it gets underway. Turner’s general preoccupation, however is always more with those that work in the world rather than command it, and so his foreground is filled with smaller vessels, coastal and local transporters and fishermen, together with their goods.

Ruskin observed such arrays as entirely characteristic of Turner, and traced this tendency back to the artist growing up in London next door to Covent Garden Market:

Turner devoted picture after picture to the illustration of effects of dinginess, smoke, soot, dust, and dusty texture; old sides of boats, weedy roadside vegetation, dung-hills, straw-yards, and all the soilings and stains of every common labour.

And more than this, he not only could endure, but enjoyed and looked for litter, like Covent Garden wreck after the market. His pictures are often full of it, from side to side; their foregrounds differ from all others in the natural way that things have of lying about in them.

Modern Painters, vol.5, [Works 7, 377-8]

Turner was also brilliant at suggesting cycles and relations. The sun shines from the left under the threat of an advancing shower. The fishing boat to the right luffs into the wind as it turn for shore. The foreground traders sheet over their cargoes to protect them from the coming squall. There are formal contrasts; red against blue picked out in the fishermen and echoed in diminishing strains across the composition. Yellow contrasts with black. Mass with spar. The local with elemental. Malta is a given as a site of relations and cycles, and as a bastion of trade.

A contemporary reader could not but have recognised the suggestions of Britain’s relationship with the wider world, and how much of its interest was founded in access. As I began this article in early December 2020 Brexit negotiations over future trade relations looked at some risk of foundering in a no deal and the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, blustered how wonderful it would be to entirely abandon one of the most remarkable, secure and best-regulated free trade areas in the world.  In the last days of 2020 he proudly announced a new deal to retain tariff-and-quota-free trade in spite of all his pretence. He omits to remind us that we had all that before, plus all the benefits of contributing as a member to the development and regulation of that market. Never mind, he trumpets that Britain will now be a sovereign island nation with control of its shores and waters. It’s probably enough to observe that Malta joined the European Union in 2004, the Schengen free movement area in 2007, the Euro in 2008 and held the presidency of the Council in 2017. Now there’s a sovereign island nation that knows that its best interests lie not in exceptionality but in commonality.

The Lazaretto, Malta. By Frank Vincentz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There is one more way in which Byron’s association with Malta proves topical from our contemporary viewpoint. It has no relation to the Illustration, but is worth mentioning all the same. When Byron returned to Malta on his way home in 1811, he hardly saw anything of the city. Instead he was forced to endure eighteen days quarantine in the lazaretto on Monoel Island in the bay immediately to the north of Valletta. This was routine for all arrivals from the east or from Africa, and Byron had in fact been sick for some time. He railed against his incarceration in his correspondence, but was eventually allowed to proceed on his journey home. Subsequent events were to prove the precaution entirely just. Plague broke out in Istanbul in 1812, spread rapidly through the Ottoman empire, and in March 1813 was carried from Alexandria to Malta on the brigantine San Nicola. Several off the crew fell sick on board, and despite being quarantined, some of the ship’s cargo was stolen and sold in Valletta. Cases ran amok from April. 5% of the island’s population died. Take note, people, take note.

Next: To the Ottoman court of Ali Pascha.

I might now have to give this a rest for a little while. In the meantime, a very happy new year to any regular readers; season’s greetings, whatever the season, if you are just joining us. Hope Covid is just a memory for you!

2 thoughts on “Byron’s Europe: Plate 12, Valletta Harbour, Malta

  1. You should be glad that Britain took Malta, the only reason you’re not speaking French or German. Artists know very little of politics, power or how bad things can get. They’re idealists. Art is not about real life, but a conception of it.

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