Galea's art studio and gallery has occupied Valletta for almost a century.
Galea's art studio was officially established in Malta by Chev. Joseph Galea in 1920.
It was established under the name of Charing Cross Art Studio at 70, Strada Mezzodi (South Street) in Valletta.Joseph was still 16 years old. His father, Carmelo, was a barber by trade and also dealt in antiques. He had a large store full of antique furniture and paintings just next to Our Lady of Victories church in upper South St, and the barber shop was further down the street, where the studio is currently situated. Joseph was quite the rebel . In his teens he had an argument with his father and ran away from home and went to live with some friends.
He got a job as a dispatch rider for the British carrying messages from Fort St. Elmo to Fort St. Angelo, and to spite his father he would ride his motorbike in front of the barber shop and raise the engine and speed off again, with his father shouting out obscenities behind him. When Carmelo retired left the shop to Joseph who turned it into his own art studio. He specialized in watercolours and oil paintings and was tutored by Chev. Edward Caruana Dingli and Giuseppe Cali`. Apart from Joseph’s art there was also a large selection of gouache paintings by the D’Esposito family. These 3 Neapolitan artists came to Malta in the early 1900`s and painted hundreds of paintings, mostly of the Grand Harbour and its warships. These paintings are now collectors items.
In 1924 Joseph exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley, London, where he was awarded a silver medal for his pen and ink sketches of the interior of St. John`s Cathedral. (Now in a private collection).
In 1931 he exhibited in Paris where he was nominated Membre d`Honeure pour le merite artistique de la Societe` d`Histoire Internationale.
Joseph was often commissioned to paint Royal Naval warships that entered the Grand Harbour at that time and when World War II broke out he became an official war artist. He would spend many air raids up on his roof or in strategic points sketching away oblivious to the danger around him. All his paintings had to pass censorship before being put up for sale or show.
In the late 1980`s a British senior citizen visited the gallery and asked for Joseph Galea. When we informed him that he had passed away at the age of 80 he remarked that it was due to him that he lived to that ripe age. Apparently this British visitor was posted on the anti aircraft gun post at King George V Gardens in Floriana during the attack on the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. He realized that nearby there was a man sitting on the wall holding a sketchbook drawing the attack. He immediately ran out of his gunpost and dragged Joseph into the safety of the sandbags. The attack on the Illustrious was considered to be the heaviest air raid of the whole war where all the cities around the Grand Harbour were extensively damaged.
In 1941 he was commissioned to do a 6-foot oil painting depicting the attack on the HMS Illustrious, to which he was an eye witness. The painting was to be presented to the captain of the ship. When the painting was done it was put on show publicly at St. George’s Square in Valletta complete with a guard of honour before it was presented. Photos of the painting appeared in the War Illustrated magazine and The London Times.
Although Valletta was heavily bombed during the war, Charing Cross Art Studio opened on a regular basis until April 1941. The Opera house, just opposite the shop, was completely destroyed after receiving a direct hit. One of the massive columns flew directly into the shop through the shutter and windows and fell through the floor and settled in the cellar.
Joseph was known to be a hard, tough man but confessed that that day he burst into tears seeing his business and his beloved Opera House destroyed in one fell swoop.
During the second world war
Because of the heavy bombing Joseph had to transport all his fathers antiques from the large store room in Valletta to a safer place in Birkirkara
He immediately opened another temporary studio in Valley Road, Birkirkara, close to where his family (originally from Valletta) was residing as refugees. In the meantime war damage architects confirmed the shop in Valletta was safe again after extensive repairs and the removal of the column from the cellar. Charing Cross Art Studio was not much to look at then. The facade of the shop was blocked up by debris from the Opera House leaving only a small entrance. The door was taken from another bombed out house and planks and wooden beams, again from the debris, served as a temporary flooring. Business as usual was restored just before Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily) in early 1943. Valletta was packed with Allied servicemen just before the invasion and business was good. Paintings of Malta, hand-made greeting cards and hand painted ash trays were the best sellers. Joseph also offered the service of having RAF and USAF squadron insignia’s painted on flight jackets. Sadly not all these jackets were picked up as many pilots had been killed in action.
Because of the heavy bombing Joseph had to transport all his family's belongings, his fathers antiques from the large store room in Valletta to a safer place in Birkirkara. In those days transport was with horse and cart and Joseph had to make at least a dozen trips from Valletta to Birkirkara. The distance was approximately 6 miles, which is not a long, distance but one had to remember that this was 1941 and Malta was enduring 3 to 4 air raids a day, and the roads were full of bomb craters. Many a time the air raid sirens would sound and the cart driver would dash off to the shelters leaving Joseph with the cart. Joseph would remain there, calmly light his cigar and watch the air raid until the “raider passed” siren would sound. The risk and the hassle was all in vain. After the war Joseph went to bring his antiques back to Valletta. They had been locked in a musty store room for over 4 years and Joseph found them reduced to what he described as “a pile of tobacco”. The damp and mould had completely wiped out his entire store.
Supplies were scarce in those days and getting hold of good quality water colour paints was always a problem. One day a British seaman carrying a large bag approached Joseph. The seaman was posted in the naval yard where damaged ships were either repaired or scrapped . While on one of these ships he came across a large stock of water colour block pans in every colour. He “salvaged” these and took them to Joseph and sold them to him. Each 1cm x 1cm block had the royal insignia of Queen Elizabeth embossed in it.
As the studio was in the same street as the Admiralty House – now the Museum of Fine Arts- many high ranking officers and VIP’s stopped by to pick up a souvenir or have a chat with Joseph, who was always at the studio entrance, cigar in his mouth, painting on his easel. Frequent visitors were Admiral King, the Commander-in-Chief of the US Navy who was in Malta in 1945 on the way to the Yalta Conference with President Franklin Roosevelt and Lord Louis Mountbatten who used to greet Joseph every morning and stop to look at his latest paintings, and every Christmas would commission him to paint 3 paintings for him. These would then be given as presents to HM the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Sea Lord. Joseph could not speak very good English but that did not stop him from chatting to high ranking British officers. One occasion was when Lord Mountbatten came to the studio in a very foul mood after having been to Castille Palace to see the Prime minister of Malta, then Dom Mintoff. Apparently Mintoff had not given the green light to let Lord Mountbatten bring over horses from the UK for his polo club.
Among the many letters and certificates in the family archives, two stand out. One is from the Palace in Valletta dated 20 April 1924 from HE Governor Lord Plumer thanking the artist for his pen and ink portrait in which he states “it is an excellent likeness”. The other is from Fishponds, Netley Abbey, Hants dated 2 July 1927 from Lord Louis Mountbatten congratulating the artist for the watercolour of his yacht “Shrimp”
Till the present day
After the war, in 1947, the art studio was refurbished.
After the war, in 1947, the art studio was refurbished. Carrara marble was used for its floor and facade. The shop windows were made from mahogany wood salvaged from a scrapped warship lying in the Grand Harbour. These features are still there today.
In 1950, Joseph's son Edwin, joined the business and like his father became an artist too. He was taught by his father and nowadays is regarded to be Malta's leading marine artist. His love for the sea and the military spurred him to study naval history and marine art intensely. Joseph's other son, Charles, also joined the business about 10 years later.
Today Galea's Art Studio and Gallery are run by Edwin's children Pierre and Edwin Jr.