Edward Pirotta: sculpture prodigy who befuddled British antiques dealers

A key part of his biography may be ethically dubious, but the wartime sculptor Edward Pirotta (1939-1968) will be commemorated in an upcoming lecture by Prof. Joseph Paul Cassar at St James Cavalier, Valletta, tomorrow.

Though he failed to sign and date a lot of his work, Edward Pirotta would take many photographs of his sculptures.
Though he failed to sign and date a lot of his work, Edward Pirotta would take many photographs of his sculptures.

Maltese-born sculptor Edward Pirotta, who was notably commissioned by The Sunday Times of London to embarrass the British antiques trade in 1966, died two years later in London following a fatal motorcycle accident.

Eagle-eyed visitors to the National Museum of Fine Arts may have spotted some of Pirotta's works, but in conducting his research by request of the Pirotta family, Prof. Joseph Paul Cassar discovered that the bulk of Pirotta's works was to be found scattered throughout Europe... and even America.

Cassar, who is Professor Fine Arts and Art History at University of Maryland University College, Maryland, USA, will eventually be collating his 12-year research into a book, after Pirotta's family called on him to look into Pirotta's back catalogue.

This proved to be something of a challenging endeavour, however, and not just because Pirotta's work ended up in several different countries.

"Edward Pirotta was very prolific in his short career and produced most of his works abroad; particularly in Rome and in the United Kingdom, although quite a number of his sculptures can now be found in the United States of America.

"During his time of studies in Rome, Edward paid rent for his apartment (at least for a period just over a year, possibly more), by giving his artworks to the landlord (who appreciated Edward's talent), in exchange for his monthly dues," Cassar said. 

Pirotta also sold most of what he produced at the Academia di Belle Arti when he exhibited them in Via Margutta on a regular basis.

"Edward sold his work out of necessity, for lack of storage space and the need to supplement his scholarship grant in order to be able to meet the rising costs of daily expenses and travel each time he visited Malta during the summer holidays," Pirotta added, pointing out a further problem in pinpointing and dating Pirotta's artwork accurately.

"Several friends of Edward's commented on how keen he was on working and that he hardly ever bothered to sign or date his work. While this may be true with reference to most of his output, I have discovered that Edward was very enthusiastic to photograph and document everything. He took an automatic camera with him everywhere," Cassar said.

Though the romance of Pirotta's biography - being an artist who died far too young - may have been the initial impetus for Cassar to begin researching into his work, he also discovered him to not only be a prolific sculptor, but one of considerable skill too.

"He developed a technique which provided a textured surface made out of liquid plaster poured onto his works which created a more interesting uneven coating over his human images, a kind of an impressionistic image but very expressive at the same time.

"For this reason, Edward Pirotta soon proved to be a very valid and unique artist, and it is worth recording his contribution as a protagonist of Maltese Modern Art and art history in general," Cassar said.

But perhaps the most memorable - and amusing - detail from Pirotta's life pertains to a quirky (though ethically questionable) assignment from The Sunday Times of London in 1966.


The two blackamoor replica sculptures by Edward Pirotta and Vilmo Gibello that fooled antiques experts

The paper intended to "burst one of the greatest bubbles" of the antiques trade in Britain at the time, by commissioning Pirotta and a fellow sculptor - Vilmo Gibello - to produce reproductions of 18th century 'blackamoor' sculptures and pass them off as genuine during an auction.

According to Cassar, Pirotta "worked on the project full time, from Christmas Eve to late January, in order to finish the task and deliver the sculptures to The Sunday Times," and the effort, in the end, paid off.

"The two blackamoors were put on show in Messrs. Knight Franck and Rutley's auction rooms in Hanover Square. First rank British and French experts were invited to draw up a written appreciation of the moors with the intention of establishing a definitive attribution and their authenticity.

"One of the experts remarked that they were genuine, but possibly made at different times, but by the same hand. Before everything was revealed by the newspaper, a buyer submitted a written offer of £650 - Pirotta and Gibello managed to fool the experts," Cassar said.

Though the ethics of the assignment may appear to be somewhat murky, Cassar is of the belief that more than anything, the episode only serves as further evidence of Pirotta's artistic prowess.

"It demonstrates the talent and skill that Pirotta had, not only as a carver, but also in the knowledge of antique works. This was particularly evident in the expert way he produced patinas on his sculpture. He is recorded to have made use of simple materials such as shoe polish, bronze, silver and gold powder to get impressive convincing results," Cassar said.

The lecture will take place at St James Cavalier's Music Room, and will begin at 19:00.