Art and Artists, Britain-Caribbean

Not surprisingly, the twin processes of migration and travel lie at the core of fully understanding and appreciating the nature of visual arts links that exist between Britain and the Caribbean. Long before Britain became a temporary or permanent home to artists of the post-war period, it was British artists traveling in the Caribbean who initiated a process of artistic exchange that continues to this day. As Britain tightened its grip on Jamaica and a number of relatively smaller islands in the eastern Caribbean in the eighteenth century, it heralded the arrival in the region of an assortment of travellers, businessmen, and others keen to make a fresh start for themselves in the “New World.” Chief amongst these [people were the traders and plantation owners who were responsible for operating the systems of slavery that turned the Caribbean into a lucrative component of the British Empire. As the region developed economically, an assortment of tradesmen and skilled artisans made the colonized islands of the region their permanent or temporary home. Included in these groups of people were painters, both professional and amateur, and it was thee artists who formed the earliest artistic links between Britain and the Caribbean. The work these artists produced was very much of its time and reflected the dominant trends in European and British landscape and portrait painting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It was, however, in the last century that many of the most significant and interesting developments occurred. From time to time, in the early part of the twentieth century, British artists would visit Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, where they would, for varying periods of time, live and work. Perhaps the best known British painter to spend time in Jamaica during this time was Augustus John (1878-1961). One of the gems that resulted from his visit is the painting “Two Jamaican Girls,” painted in 1934, an engaging portrait that is now in the collection of Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. But by far the most significant British artist to take up residence in the Caribbean was Edna Manley (1900-1987). It is difficult to overstate her importance in the building of what can be recognized and acknowledged as “Caribbean” art. Within Jamaica she is regarded as a seminal figure, not just in the twentieth-century Jamaican art but also as a figure akin to mother of the nation, on account of her being the wife of one leader of the Jamaican independence movement (Norman Manley) and the mother of a prime minister of Jamaica, (Michael Manley). Apart from her own distinctive practice as an artist, Manley was also a cultural activist and educator; significant homage has been paid to her work in those areas, in that the most important art school in the Caribbean, located in Kingston, Jamaica, was several years ago renamed the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

The complete version of the above text, written by Eddie Chambers, appeared in Volume 1 of Britain and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, A Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Edited by Will Kaufman and Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson, ABC CLIO, 2005: 109 - 111