An entire generation who grew up reading Id-Denfil must still have fond memories of this iconic Maltese textbook which accompanied them throughout their primary school years.
Loved by all, this orange book with a blue dolphin on its cover, was popular both for its simple stories about life and traditions in Malta at the time, as well as its black-and-white illustrations.
The artist behind those wonderful sketches is Joseph Mallia, who was born in 1931 and has been living at Casa Arkati in Mosta for the past three years. Mallia turned 89 in August.
October 1 marked International Day of Older Persons. One of this year’s main objectives is to combat ageism. The vulnerable elderly within society are not simply statistics. Elderly lives matter and Mallia is the perfect example of how the world should look at the person behind their age.
“Joe had the art of drawing to heart and our parents acknowledged this,” his brother Lino, who visits him regularly, says.
Throughout his career, Mallia produced around 10,000 illustrations for books, workbooks, charts and posters and another 15,000, including graphic representations, for the local TV station.
Moreover, he worked as a freelance illustrator for the local papers, producing satirical and political strip cartoons between 1953 and 1964, while also publishing illustrated storybooks for children, both locally and abroad. These include Il-Mitħna (1973), Il-Misluta (1980) and A Knight in Fancy Dress (1994).
At the young age of 14, Mallia studied at the School of Art in Valletta, where his talent was spotted immediately and he was encouraged to further his studies.
He attended Stella Maris College, where he obtained the Oxford Certificate of Education, and where he was a tutor for several years until he was of age to be admitted to the Training College for Government Primary School Teachers.
In 1950, Mallia became a teacher, starting his career at Ta’ Xbiex Primary School under the headship of Romeo Micallef. He was an excellent teacher and, being proficient in the preparation of teaching aids, he instilled in his students an innate interest in all subjects.
In 1951, he started designing adverts on wrapping paper for a small printing press in South Street, Valletta. Such works were innovative and sold like hotcakes. He was also commissioned to design book covers, a popular one being Storja ta’ Malta, by Andrew F Vella, OP.
Mallia loved to teach through the medium of art. In 1952 he taught art in a number of state primary schools, as well as designed cartoons for the daily Maltese newspaper Il-Berqa.
In 1955, he published a series of strip cartoons under the pen name Medina for The Sunday Times of Malta, entitled Under Three Flags.
These depicted historical events in Malta from the time of the knights.
“Through the strokes of his pen, Joe expressed and interpreted the attitudes and thoughts of various personalities. It’s wonderful to note how each strip cartoon is a recollection of a historical narrative, especially when one realises that there were no computers to reproduce faces and emotions in those days. He drew them all by hand,” his brother says.
On ending his teaching career in 1992, Mallia had the time to focus more on art using watercolours. Every year, he sold a number of watercolour portraits at the Malta Trade Fair or at private art exhibitions which he held on several occasions, individually or with other artists.
He was also commissioned to prepare scenes by people who admired his work. He used as his medium of expression pen, watercolour or oil with full dexterity.
Mallia has around 1,500 watercolours to his name. These works of art have all been sold, with the exception of a very few, which the artist has kept.
Mallia’s brushstrokes in each of his paintings seem to leave a characteristic mark which distinguishes him from all other artists. His style is coherent and well balanced, while his subtle gradations of tone, his expression technique and the harmonious mixture of soft colours give individuality to his works.
“Before sitting down to start painting, my brother very often wandered around the island, drawing rough sketches of particular scenes. He would then return to his studio to develop his sketch into a full-size drawing.
He hated cameras, because to him these gadgets only reproduced artificial scenes,” Lino explains.
Mallia, who admired the simple life of country folk, reproduced this in most his works. Through his brush the artist immortalises old customs, such as that of the farmer going round village streets milking goats, to sell milk.
He also painted various churches and chapels, together with feast celebrations. Through his art, Mallia also tried to keep alive traditions that have now become extinct, such as sacred processions with the parish priest carrying the Holy Host before administering the last rites.
In his paintings, Mallia tried to create the illusion of depth and studied hard to perfect his figure drawing. In his depiction of congregations of masses, he took great care to distribute many faces harmoniously and portray their emotions – those attending processions showed jubilation, while the priest looked solemn.
Lino describes Mallia as an unassuming personality “who liked nothing better than to sit down with pen and paper in hand, lost in his thoughts. He may be considered as an early promoter of education for children, not as much by his writing as by his charismatic designs in his illustrations”.