Bonavia, George (1818-1901)

Bonavia, George (1818-1901)

George Bonavia was a Maltese artist predominantly known for his portraits and scenes.

With piercing blue eyes and carefully coiffured side parting, the anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor is immortalised in chalk and pastels. It’s an unusual image, a striking bust-length portrayal in a limited palette - red on red with areas of heightening. Bonavia often worked in this way, preferring to emphasise tone over colour. His sitters are modest, hovering over textured paper with quiet sincerity.

Born into an affluent family, Bonavia’s grandfather, Matteo, was the first Maltese officer of the Royal Engineers. As such, together with his siblings, he was afforded a distinguished education, probably in Valletta the capital. Both of his brothers, Giuseppe and Emanuel, forged impressive careers - the first became an architect, the second a surgeon.

Details of George’s artistic training are scant, but he first appears in the English archives in 1851. He lived at 2 Percy Street, near Tottenham Court Road, together with several other artists. Percy Street was an illustrious address and home to a host of creative pioneers.

During the same year, he debuted at the Royal Academy (RA) with ‘Portrait of a Young Lady’ and remained in London for the rest of his life. Exhibiting a further 26 works at the RA over 23 years. Aside from portraits, he also produced wistful scenes in the Victorian taste, ‘The Heart has Tendrils Like the Vine’ (1866), and ‘A Mother’s Prayer’ (1871).

In 1886, five years before his death, several of his works were shown at the Royal Albert Hall.

His drawing of Sir Edward Burnett Tylor is held at the National Portrait Gallery.


Royal Academy in London, British Institution, Royal Society of British Artists.

Public Collections

National Portrait Gallery.



Born in Porto Salvo, Valletta, Malta to Calcedonio Bonavia (1778-1850) and Mary Hobson.


Lived at 2 Percy Street, London, with several artists.

Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘Portrait of a Young Lady’. He exhibited 27 works in total between 1851 and 1874.


Lived in London.


Lived in London.


Lived in London.


Exhibited ‘Sunset’ at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts.


Exhibited ‘I don’t know what to say’ at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts. Reviewed by an art critic.

“Glancing over the cluster of small pictures with which the numbering commences, we pause first at No. 7, ‘I don't know what to say,’ by George Bonavia. The subject is a girl musing over a love letter, in which, apparently, a very interesting proposal has been made. The attitude of the figure is easy and natural, and the features full of expression. One can see well enough that ‘Willie’ is to receive no unfavourable answer. In point of execution the picture is quietly effective. Mr. Bonavia exhibits another pleasing little work, No. 447, representing a girl looking wistfully after a lost bird.”


Lived in London.


Lived in London.


Married Fanny Wakefield Collard.
Exhibited ‘Through the Wood’ at the Norwich Fine Art Association.


Lived in London.
Birth of son Frederick George Bonavia.


Exhibited several works at the Royal Albert Hall.


Died in London.

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