Leandro Preziosi’s photograph of Clementina Le Marchant hand coloured by E. Bond.Leandro Preziosi’s photograph of Clementina Le Marchant hand coloured by E. Bond.

Early photography in Malta is receiving well deserved scrutiny. One of the earliest Maltese pioneers of photography worthy of serious research was Leandro Preziosi (1820-1869), younger brother of the better known watercolourist Count Amadeo Preziosi (1816-1882).

For the scant biographical detail unearthed so far on this photographer, Margaret Harker’s pioneering Photographers of Malta, 1840-1990 remains the ‘go to’ reference. This article does not attempt to add biographical detail; instead, it offers detail on a few of the sitters who patronised Preziosi’s studios, and attempts to shine a corrective light on two recent misattributions.

Although Preziosi’s oeuvre stands out for its intrinsic quality, its additional documentary value is of enormous benefit to researchers of the period. His skills quickly made him the portraitist of destination to the great and the good. Among the most elevated of his sitters were the Governor and his family; others inclu­ded Maltese nobility and the vast number of service personnel stationed in or passing through Malta who wanted a record of themselves to send to family back at home.

Unidentified officer in the Royal Malta Fencible Artillery.Unidentified officer in the Royal Malta Fencible Artillery.

Foreigners were not the only servicemen who sought portraits by Preziosi. Two of the photos reproduced here show officers of the Royal Malta Fencible Artillery. The portrait of Walter Sciortino bears Preziosi’s stamp and the handwritten identification: ‘Sciortino, Royal Malta Fencibles’. The photo shows the sitter in the full dress uniform of an Artillery subaltern – the Austrian knot lace on his sleeves and the artillery pattern sword by his side both confirm this. Sciortino was commissioned into the Royal Malta Fencible Regiment as ensign on January 18, 1861, a week before the regiment converted to artillery.

The photo of the older officer shows him wearing the mess uniform of a field officer of the Royal Malta Fencible Artillery. A similar, hand-coloured image was recently published in Marquis de Piro’s The National Portrait Gallery of Malta (page 496) under the caption of Sir Agostino Randon, K.C.M.G. This cannot be correct as Randon (1775-1853) had died eight years before the Royal Malta Fencibles converted to an artillery regiment.

If any reader can offer additional information about this sitter, the author would be grateful.

Preziosi’s oeuvre is of enormous benefit to researchers of the period

It was Governor Lieutenant-General Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant (1858-1864) who was instrumental in the conversion of the poorly paid Royal Malta Fencible Regiment into a better paid artillery corps, so it is fitting that the next three portraits to be considered feature the Le Marchant family. The Governor’s portrait is signed by him and dated November 21, 1862. I assume this was the date when the photo was taken. It shows the Governor in evening dress with white bow necktie and top hat. He is wearing the breast star, sash and badge of a Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George granted to him on April 16, 1860.

Governor Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant.Governor Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant.

Governor Le Marchant’s tenure in Malta ended in November 1864, and in that year Preziosi took photos of two of the Governor’s daughters, Blanche Maude Margaret and Clementina Mary Meysey.

These show them in costume, possibly the Carnival costumes they wore that year. Both are seated on a balus­trade (the same one used in the Sciortino photograph); the older Blanche with her feet resting on a chair, the younger Clementina (of shorter stature – about 12 years old in this photograph), with her legs dangling but crossed elegantly. Each hold posies of flowers, with Clementina wearing a small bouquet pinned on her breast. While Blanche adopts a relaxed attitude and gazes to the side, Clementina strikes a more self-conscious pose and seems to prepare herself for a much larger audience.

These two photos of the Le Mar­chant sisters bear no signs of Pre­ziosi’s authorship; the photographic paper they are printed on is adhered directly onto the album page. However, this page is of vital importance because it includes the names of the sitters and the year in which the photographs were taken: 1864.

The serendipitous purchase of two similar photographs of the Le Marchant sisters, only a few weeks after the former were acquired, added a novel facet to the story of photography in Malta. These two photographs are mounted as cartes-de-visite confirming the work of Preziosi; that of Blanche being printed with the photographer’s address: 19, Piazza Bretanica, Floriana, Malta. Moreover both photographs are hand-coloured. The photograph of Clementina having a handwritten note that it was “Painted by E. Bond, 13, Castle Terrace, Southsea”. To date, no details of this artist have emerged.

Walter Sciortino, Royal Malta Fencible ArtilleryWalter Sciortino, Royal Malta Fencible Artillery

Blanche’s  portrait shows some corrective work to the background, however that of Clementina appears finished and is a visually striking image. Clementina, or ‘Tiny’, as she was referred to, has been rendered in celestial blue outer skirt with bows in her hair and hat to match. The shoes on her daintily crossed feet also sport matching blue bows. There is no doubt that this is the portrait of a young Anglo-Saxon lady and not a member of the Maltese aristocracy as described fancifully in a recent publication.

Tiny’s pose is assured and unfased; it portrays a willful character shrouded in feminine finery. She was no doubt a resilient young madam; an account of her in the Malta Times of May 2, 1861, reported an incident we might assume typical of her resilience:

“We regret to state that an accident of a serious nature occurred last week to Miss Clementina Le Marchant, third daughter of his Excellency the Governor. Whilst descending some stairs on the Palace Tower she fell backwards over the parapet from a height of about 15 feet, and was picked up insensible. It is gratifying to be able to announce that the young lady is now perfectly recovered from the severe shock sustained by the fall.”

The author wishes to thank Ray Miller for his invaluable assistance with the description of military uniforms.

All the photos featured are from the author’s collection and permission for their reproduction should, as a matter of courtesy, be sought from the owner by e-mailing xrisgrech@gmail.com.

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