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Almost a tribute to Gladys Peto

Infuriating, charming, insensitive, delightful. The litany of symmetrical opposites that spring to mind revisiting a 1920s travel book about Malta could be next to infinite.

To the likes of Peto, the British in Malta lived in their own luxuriant oasis, occasionally disturbed by dismally underpaid servants and natives

It is not a work to read with your passions locked up in an ice-box. It is a book to hate and to love, to warm up to and to swear at. It is Gladys Peto’s Malta and Cyprus, published in London in July 1928 and selling at five shillings, today rare and almost totally forgotten.

Not really a tourist guide, nor a travelogue – more of a first-aid handbook to help British service personnel and families billeted to Malta or Cyprus to settle down without major trauma. A tourist guide-book would have been almost useless then, with virtually no tourists bothering with the island.

“Malta, I understand, has great hope of becoming a tourist centre, but it has at present no gay hotels with jazz bands and daily dances, and few attractions for the ordinary tourist.” Incidentally, Peto resorts to the words gay and queer over and over again, but in their old King’s English sense, before the terms shed their ancient meaning and morphed into libertarian slogans.

The artist and writer Gladys Peto established herself in Malta with her husband, the army doctor Cuthbert Lindsay Emmerson, whom she had married in 1922 and who is recorded working on the island from September 4, 1924, to March 18, 1925.

Dr Emmerson, a captain of the Royal Army Medical Corps, had served in Mesopotamia during World War I, and had then been posted to India and after that to Malta. He left the island to take up a new position in Egypt. He retired in 1946 with the rank of colonel and died on April 16, 1977.

During Dr Emmerson’s stay in Malta, and perhaps longer, his wife Gladys Emma kept herself very busy in Malta – clubbing, painting, drawing and writing – and making sure she never got to know anyone Maltese.

Sadly Peto’s star has waned. She was, and deservedly, a household name in the years between the two world wars as an illustrator, mostly of children’s books and as a highly successful designer of commercial promotion.

And vastly talented she was too. Her line drawings have a marvellous innocence, an economy born of innate sensitivity, besides that extraordinary fluidity and sureness that betray the finest graphic skills.

It is with her ‘Maltese’ art that I am mainly concerned, and for it I have nothing but praise, and with her ‘Maltese’ writings, about which saying I have rather mixed feelings could be quite an understatement. The latter, vexing as they may be, still have major added value, bearing first-hand evidence of the abyss that separated the rulers from the ruled; they profile the ghetto the Maltese inhabited in their own country, the inability of many colonials to understand the Maltese and the ability of many Maltese to misunderstand their overlords. Peto lived in a totally Anglo-centric universe.

A foreigner who knew nothing about Malta could well read three-quarters of this book realising only quite vaguely that in Malta another sizable population existed, besides the dashing band of British army and navy officers and their families. Save for the odd mention of same ‘simple’ housemaid, the surly karozzin driver or the unhygienic milk seller, Peto lived all her time in Malta almost oblivious of the parallel existence of a whole population that by far outnumbered the dominant Anglo-Saxons.

I do not believe the artist ever records talking to a Maltese inhabitant, apart from some out-of-focus creatures whom the Good Lord, ever-mindful of Britain’s imperial vocation, had providentially put in place to serve the British residents, as grovelling (good) as they were inexpensive (even better). Perhaps her only encounter – a silent and distant one – with any Maltese native other than housemaids, hotel-keepers, cab-drivers or tradesmen, happened in Rabat: a mildly humorous incident.

Her friend Kitty rushed to the hotel where Peto was staying in Rabat, with the titillating news that just round the corner was a gambling den. Tingling with trepidation and guilt, the two crept to the building which, sure enough, had ‘Casino’ displayed over the entrance. They tiptoed to a window and peeped into a small room filled with books and “the duller sort of newspaper”.

No Monte Carlo thrills so far; all they saw was “a little green baize table and there sat two fat, dignified gentlemen playing... not some wonderful southern gambling game... but chess”. The ladies, thoroughly deflated, reckoned the police had just raided the gaming paradise.

Only later did the owner of the hotel explain that the Casino nearby was really an altogether unexciting club for Maltese professionals and gentlemen. And being Maltese, they had to be fat.

To the likes of Peto, the British in Malta lived in their own luxuriant oasis surrounded by uncharted desert, occasionally disturbed by the appearance of dispensers of fevers looking suspiciously like goats, dismally underpaid servants and natives who cheated when drawing up your bill.

Peto, from Maidenhead in Berkshire, was born in 1890 and studied art in her native town and later in London. She grew up to become a leading fashion designer, illustrator and writer of children’s books. Virtually all we know of her Malta connection is what she allows us to glean from her book and from her art work. She does not seem to have made any Maltese friends at all, or even acquaintances, so the chances of finding much about her in the Malta sources appear slim indeed.

She left a distinctive stamp on the art world. “Peto’s work remains appealing now for its attractive and inventive Art Deco style, clearly influenced by Aubrey Beardsley. At its best it captures something magical of the world of childhood and cutting edge in the world of fashion.”

Apart from her coloured sketches, outbursts of chic Art Deco sensitivity, her drawings are deliberately, starkly two-dimensional – totally innocent of shading, with objects and people braving the bright sunlight without any trailing shadows, and with depth only hinted at by the optical artifices of perspective.

The artist often plants children in her compositions – perhaps because the Emmerson couple never had any themselves. The boys and girls invariably appear serene – and cryptically, ever unsmiling too. Why should children never look as if they had learned to smile?

The book contains seven black and white line drawings of Maltese subjects, and I have found another two Malta scenes in colour on the internet. In no local collection I know of have I ever come across any work by Peto. The painter’s husband, Dr Emmerson, wrote the final chapter, a practical guide (“some condensed details”).

I would want Peto the person and her elegant artwork, her impeccable contours, to be remembered. She is, after all, one of the extremely few artists who saw Malta through Art Deco eyes. Almost no others come to mind.

After suffering a stroke which paralysed her right hand (her painting hand) she passed away in 1977 aged 87 in Northern Ireland where the Emmerson couple had moved to before the war. “It is difficult to understand why an illustrator and writer as accomplished and pioneering as Gladys Emma Peto was during the 1920s and 30s, is not recognised today as one of the greatest artists of her time.”

In Malta, Peto changed house several times, and she left hints of having stayed on the island more than once; but she felt she had to comment principally on two abodes. First she and her husband settled in a hotel in Rabat, which the couple probably chose because of its proximity to the Mtarfa military hospital where Dr Emmerson worked. They then moved to St Julian’s, to accommodation which left them supremely gratified.

The author does not mention the Rabat hotel by name, but makes it quite obvious she was referring to the Point de Vue, which claims, I believe rightly, to have operated in the hospitality business since 1889, and is still going strong – quite likely one of the very oldest hotels in Malta still in business today.

Its façade (designed, I rather suspect, by architect Francesco Buonamici?) shows an imposing, elegant early settecento palace, now disastrously disfigured by a huge roofed portico in bronze aluminium that punishes relentlessly a splendid display of baroque features, careful not to spare one inch of the lovely ground-floor elevation into which it bites. Aluminium profiles and baroque mouldings, that sublime blend. Now why didn’t we think of that before?

And what gushing praise the hotel gets from Mrs Emmerson. She records in awe and admiration that it actually “owns a bath and electric light”.

But allow me to give you her whole description, quintessentially, charmingly British: “In Rabato is a hotel where you can have tea on the terrace by the front-door, and look through a grove of trees to the old city gate. They give you tea in a shiny brown teapot, and you eat the famous Malta honey. You can also have dinner (and a very good dinner) at the hotel – sitting at a table in the window, with a most glorious right view across the island to Valletta and the gleaming sea.

“For dessert they bring you loukoum, dried figs and seeds of pomegranate in little dishes – a most romantic affair. The dining room is washed in peacock blue and hung with enormous mirrors. Here, in this hotel you can stay in great comfort, if your tastes are simple. It is an hotel of great charm and character, and owns a bath and electric light”.

And no, this is not lifted from Trip-Advisor. The fact that the hotel belonged to “that admirable man, full of knowledge and excellent English” enhanced their stay no end.

During the war, what was left of my family moved to Rabat as ‘refugees’ from Valletta, then as vulnerable as few other towns. My uncle’s house, which gave us shelter, was almost round the corner from the Point de Vue, in St Augustine Avenue, and I still have chilling memories linked to that hotel, a favourite watering hole for Allied servicemen from the Ta’ Qali airfield nearby.

A bomb fell somewhere in its vicinity, killing a number of British airmen. I did not directly witness that carnage, but I had to pass in front of the hotel just after a bomb hit what I was told was a large herd of animals in the same area.

Copious blood and morsels of flesh were splattered and strewn in every direction, within a ragged radius which, to the eyes of an innocent child, had mostly turned to sticky red.

The sight of so much blood and living detritus haunted me on many a scary night. Or perhaps, I now tend to think, my mother deceived me into believing the gory mess was the massacre of farm animals to shield an impressionable toddler from the horrors of seeing human beings minced out of recognition.

From Rabat, the Emmersons moved to St Julian’s, to what Peto repeatedly calls “the nicest house in the world”. She describes it rhapsodically, even resigned to overlook the fact that it lacked a kitchen and a pantry: it had a terraced garden, complete with caves in the walls, a tennis court, an underground bathing passage that led to the sea, and a little formal garden, with walls 20 feet high, with a fountain over which a stone goddess simpered forever beneath the lemon trees.

Peto published a line drawing of the façade and streetscape of this nicest house in the world, but did not specify the name of the street – only the door number ‘114’, and described the house itself in great detail: the stone stairs led up to a long, narrow drawing room, the stair rails had “a sort of Adam’s charm”.

Some windows abutted on an iron balcony, weighted by purple bougainvillea and with a view towards the sea. The drawing room had a wide, sculpted fireplace and five doors also “heavily carved”. The house even boasted of a tiny chapel up the winding stairs, and “if you believe me” a hen-house on the roof, not to mention a bath complete with geyser. For this the ecstatic tenants paid £40 a year – just under €50.

I have tried, unsuccessfully, I confess, to trace the whereabouts of this mini-Garden of Eden. Not over-keen on being crowned king of the naive, I now no longer fight back the suspicion that this unearthly mirage could be one of the many victims that lucre and progress conspired to sacrifice in the St Julian’s area.

If it still exists, and should any reader be able to help me identify it (keeping in mind that door numbers outside Valletta may have changed), I would be grateful indeed.

To be continued.

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