By Dr. Simon Mercieca
The town of Bormla has a long tradition of affiliation with the sea. The sea has given this city its past cultural glory and its fading social wealth. The periods of belligerency in the Mediterranean in the nineteenth and twentieth century were godsend to many people living in the Cottonera area as they increased the British Naval activity and this in turn, created jobs which guaranteed revenue to many of the family breadwinners through contractual employment. Yet, in Bormla, as was the case with the other three harbour cities, the demarcation between war and peace was not clear-cut. Whilst today, we are witnessing groups of people on our bastions peacefully protesting against the arrival of warships from NATO countries, the people living in this area, every evening, used to go onto their home roofs to watch the arrival or departure of warships in the Grand Harbour. The presence of these ships meant work for a number of people, from the petty ship chandlers to the coal stevedores, from the harbour boats rowers to the thousands of other craftsmen who worked in the area, not to mention the enormous workforce at the Admiralty Dockyard. Many of the latter employees hailed or lived in Cottonera and its environs.
A few weeks ago, on the initiative of the archpriest of Bormla, Canon Joe Mifsud, a project was initiated to restore wooden artefacts that once belonged to one of the many confraternities of Bormla; the Confraternity dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. Fortunately, Bormla lost very few artefacts as a result of enemy action during the Second World War. The parish church was spared the heavy bombings that ravished the surrounding areas. However, this does not mean that no damage was caused. During one of the raids, when some of the neighbouring houses were severely damaged, a bomb blast damaged some wooden sculptures representing the apostles, as well as large wooden candle-sticks, all belonging to the above-mentioned confraternity. These were eventually stored in a room in one of the attics of the church and were left to lie there for more than half a century. Fr. Mifsud took the initiative to give these artefacts a new lease of life through restoration.
On inspecting the damaged objects, the provenance and origins of the material became evident. The wood turned out to be what is locally known as tal-punent timber. The equivalent English term is yellow pine. It was a special type of wood that in the past was imported into Malta by the Admiralty Dockyard. In fact, the presence of this type of wood primarily dates back to the British period. Yellow pine is a type of soft wood and considered suitable for the fashioning of masts and spars. Yellow pine also found its way in the fittings of cabins and in other interior areas of iron-clad sea vessels. Furthermore, this type of material had another advantage which made it ideal for sculpture work. Besides its softness, a characteristic much sought after by local artists working with wood, yellow pine has no knots, making it ideal material for carving, especially when anything better is lacking.
Indeed, at a time, when certain primary materials were scarce in Malta and poverty was rampant, people utilized any suitable material that came their way for the embellishment of their churches and as a public expression of their beliefs. Hence these statues are an evocative expression of a popular art. Their austere facial expression reminds one of the medieval ascetic rigor associated with religious wooden sculptures. However, the Romantic age and the emerging Victorian style had an impact on the artist of these particular statues; the artistic fashion of the time is discernible in the vibrancy of their carved bodies.
From time to time, the Dockyard discarded unwanted or surplus material and sold it in bulk through public auctions which used to be attended by local agents or wholesalers, with the aim of then retailing what had been purchased to local customers. My maternal grandfather was one of the wholesalers who operated in Malta during the early twentieth century, who had also tried his luck from these Dockyard auctions. He hailed from Bormla and sometimes, he was one of the bidders at these auctions in the times before the Second World War. The stratagems behind these bids were so complex that they are still being recounted by the members of my family with a sense of pride for the astuteness involved. Once a lot was secured, the buyer had to be sure that he had internal support from the Drydocks workers, for this could enhance his profits. On the other hand, if the situation turned sour, one could seriously end up out of pocket. It was not in the interest of the purchaser to transfer at one go all the material bought to the warehouse.
In the case of my grand father, his warehouses were situated in the area of Porto Nuovo, in Marsa. Once he secured a bid, he adopted the unwritten praxis of transporting the acquired lots gradually over a number of days. In the meantime, with the help of Dockyard employees the material bought at auction would slowly increase in the days following the auction by the addition of new stuff. Thus the stock of discarded material continued to accumulate with new discarded material until it was completely carried away. In return, the purchaser tipped the supportive employees for their ‘benevolent’ actions. Unfortunately for my maternal grand father, his business endeavours with the surpluses of the Malta Drydocks proved to be an unprofitable business, at least, during the turbulent years of the thirties. From my grand father’s point of view, this business was not as lucrative as he had assumed it to be, to the extent that he used to sustain to have made losses from such an enterprise. Whatever, the historical truth behind his assertions, I think that he was expecting too much from such a business enterprise. Taking into consideration the political climate existing in Malta in the thirties, one cannot expect that my maternal grand father, who was a staunch supporter of Enrico Mizzi’s Partito Nazionalista, and on a local level, after moving residence from Bormla to Paola, he became an active canvasser of one of Mizzi’s candidates for the 1932 election, who ran for fifth district, which at the time comprised the Paola and Tarxien area, a certain benestant and medical doctor by profession, Dottor Paolo Schembri, and affectionately known in his district as ‘iċ-Ċimbla’, to make big profit from the surpluses of the Admiralty Dockyards. At the time the Admiralty Dockyard was considered fertile political grounds for Enrico Mizzi’s hardest political opponents, in particular, the Count Gerald Strickland, who was the leader of Anglophile lobby, the Constitutional Party. My maternal grand father’s political naiveté overshadowed his business acumen making him think that he could do a successful business venture with the Admiralty Dockyard even if, he was a staunch supporter of the irredeemable anti-British faction.
As it happens, the material used for the making of these candlesticks and the wooden statues or Appostli, as they are called in Maltese (that is the wooden statues representing the figures of apostles that used to adorn the high altar), is the type of material that used to be discarded or purposely bought from the Admiralty Dockyard. Most probably, in the case of these statues, the wooden planks were either donated by the Admiralty Dockyard directly to the church or else they were given to the church by a member or members of the confraternity. If the second hypothesis is correct, then, one cannot discard the possibility that these planks could have been discreetly stolen from the yard with the covert support of the supervising authorities or indirectly bought from local wholesalers as a result of one of the above-mentioned auctions. In great probability, when the timber was acquired, it was in the dimensions of 20 feet in length, 4 feet in width and about 5 inches in thickness. If the timber was acquired in these proportions, it had to be sawn to the length of four feet and afterwards, the sawn pieces were glued together to create a body for these carvings. All in all, two planks were needed for the making of these six statues. Other planks were required for the construction of the candlesticks. Here the same process described above was used to create the framework of the candlesticks.
On their part, the Imperial authorities took the necessary precautions to forestall theft. As was the case in the past with stationery belonging to our local civil service which used to carry the hallmark GM, anything belonging to the Admiralty or the British Services was also appropriately marked and this included the yellow pine wood that was imported by the Admiralty Dockyard. In fact, it was thanks to one of these marks that the provenance of the wood used for these artefacts was established, with the result that these signs helped date these wooden statues back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The so-called tal-Punent is very easily recognised even by individuals who do not possess knowledge about wood. The yellow pine of the Admiralty Dockyard carried the distinctive mark, known in the local Maltese jargon as sieq it-tigiega, or the ‘hen’s foot’. Both Erin Serracino-Inglott and Guze Aquilina in the Miklem and the Maltese-English Dictionary respectively mention the use of another Maltese expression in reference to this type of wood, which is sieq ir-regina (‘the Queen’s foot’). The origins of this phrase go to the Victorian age. When Queen Victoria ascended the throne this type of material, as well as many other objects which belonged to the British Crown, began to be identified as belonging to the ‘Queen’. It seems that the Maltese craftsmen and journeymen first came into contact with this particular hallmark during Queen Victoria’s reign, hence the nickname. This factor helped in dating these statues. A similar expression when referring to objects belonging to the Crown was tar-Regina (the Queen’s), in particular among British Services’ employees, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. I still vividly remember members of my family who worked with the British Services referring to anything that belonged or was derived from the said Services as tar-Regina, since they were employed ‘in Her Majesty’s Service’ and all the tools, material and property of the British Services were considered to be the property of the Queen. Meanwhile, the association of the particular hallmark used on the yellow pine with an animal was due to the peculiar form of the printed mark. It had the appearance of three linear marks, angulated in a way which made it appear as a hen’s foot.
Due to decades of neglect, the silver gilding on the statues cracked and eventually fell off. Even the undercoating gesso dissolved due to the fact these statues had been exposed to rain water for all this time. As a result of these adverse climatic conditions, the glued planks that formed the body of these carved apostles came apart. Following this disjoining, the concealed marks hidden on the surface of the planks came to the surface with the result that the hidden story of these statues was exposed.
The advice of the leading Maltese maritime expert, Mr. Joseph Muscat, was sought by the parish priest of Bormla. He has already formulated the course of action that needs to be taken to protect these old statues from further damage. A competent and skilled ex-dockyard worker, Mr. Anthony Muscat, who had been a highly skilled carpenter (he ended his career as foreman at the Admiralty’s Boat House) with vast experience in the handling of this type of material, has already been contacted to undertake the first interventions on these figures. He kind heartedly accepted to restore the planks of these figures together again.
Thus, the story of these wooden statues, which wood once belonged to the Admiralty Dockyard, has turned a full circle. An ex-employee and former foreman of the Admiralty Dockyard will be taking care of restoring these wooden pieces to their past glory. Patiently, he will be putting all the broken pieces together again to bring back their lost beauty. They deserve to be restored as they are good examples of sculptured wood. The initiative of the archpriest of Bormla, Fr. Joe Mifsud, to have these past expressions of popular culture and faith restored is to be commended. The art treasures of Bormla are not only the silver artefacts or the church’s painted ceilings. The various examples of craftsmanship in wood, many of which are indicative of excellent workmanship, need to be preserved and treasured. Perhaps, one day, these hidden gems will find their pride of place in a parish museum instead of being disregarded.
A general view of the wooden artefacts awaiting restoration.
The back of one of the wooden statues hallmarked by the British Admiralty sign.
A profile of one of the dismembered wooden statues – The statue representing the apostle Peter.
Another wooden statue awaiting restoration. It is the upper part of the statue of the apostle Andrew.