Malta’s precious time pieces

  • 26.June 2010
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According to sources close to the Malta property market, there seems to be one piece of furniture that is desired by most of the contemporary house buyers. These comprise the younger generation, or the first-time-buyers, right down to expatriates and other foreigners seeking real estate in Malta or Gozo.

As some ancient auction catalogues witness, Maltese furniture on the local market has always been around. However until the late seventies, when compared to other existent and imported furniture, Maltese antique furniture was not so much in demand. Malta’s colonial era, with its heavy dependence on the presence of the British Forces, had encouraged the consideration of certain foreign furniture as more prestigious and, in say catalogues from the 1940’s, the EM symbol, standing for ‘English Made’ frequently embellishes descriptions in catalogues.

Since the eighties however, following a period of stringent restrictions on the importation of antique furniture, indeed all furniture, under the auspices of protecting the local manufacture, saw a dwindling of requests in furniture emanating from a foreign market. Interest had shifted until it became focused on Maltese furniture and that naturally entailed a more inward looking search for Malta-made goods in general.

The past three decades have experienced a complete renaissance of the Malta-made product which now graces the antique market that has, as result, grown considerably in confidence. Besides, in these days of credit-crunch difficulties it has come to embrace fairer and sounder investments. Maltese antique furniture has become a most lucrative opportunity. This may be gauged by the mushrooming of local antique shops each with their own niche markets; a new and younger generation of buyers together with a stronger awareness and knowledge for the antiques world. Fairs, exhibitions, antiques courses, and well advertised and attended auctions also contribute to a general strong market feeling.

All these changing trends however, have never infringed on that ‘one piece of Maltese furniture’ whose value and appreciation has withstood the test of time, having gained the respect of buyers throughout generations.

More commonly known as l-Arloġġ tal-Lira (the one-pound clock) this unique Maltese wall clock could be found in palaces, convents, stately homes and Auberges of the Knights of the Order of St. John, especially during the late 18th century. Apart from telling the time, these clocks also served a decorative purpose. This rendered the clock’s case designer, as different from the actual maker of the clock movement, into a very important artisan.

A knowledge of fashionable taste, an understanding of furniture design, proportion, the rules of architectural composition, the art of ornament and an ability to appeal to the purchasing public, in this case, a discerning clientele, was, and still is, the responsibility of the case designer.

With comparatively rare exceptions such designers have remained anonymous in contrast to our knowledge of the actual clockmakers. With such decorated clocks it seems that this happened everywhere else in Europe except for one notable exception. In France of the eighteenth century, the case design of clocks was considered to be such an art-form in itself, that one may find lists of the case designers, but not the clock-makers whose work with the movement of the clock, was judged to be a necessary but not a dominating feature of the product.

The origin of the Maltese clock is unclear. What is remarkable is that a small island country was able to sustain an indigenous clockmaking trade. They were produced over a period of around one hundred and fifty years solely for the local market at a time when only the aristocracy and the Church could afford them. 

The older and more prestigious ones are often visually decorative; gilded and coloured. The dial painted with scenes or flowers, and the general effect is always pleasing. The clocks also contain varied images of landscapes and seascapes while some have floral motifs. Some feature scenes of Mdina and the Grand Harbour. Early examples had just the hour hand and later ones also had a minute hand.

My interest in antique Maltese clocks was instilled by the magnificent exhibition organised by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. It was held in April 1992 in ‘The Great Hall’ of the Auberge de Provence, Valletta, and seventy-three examples of these clocks were displayed, together with a selection of mantel and grandfather types.  Also exhibited were some clock movements including one from a turret clock, various sundials, and a full-scale diorama of a fully equipped clockmaker’s workshop of the period. The vast variety of the uniquely lavish and ornate baroque timepieces on display in this memorable exhibition were manufactured exclusively in the Maltese islands.  I wonder how many of these clocks can be found around the Islands of Malta in Malta properties that were rented in the old times and if the owners even understand the value, not only monetary.

Written by Tony Cassar Darientony