Sugar, Slavery and Art

It is no great secret that the English were the rulers of much of Jamaica’s wealth, having colonized the island from 1655-1962. As they dominated everything so they dominated art in the island. During the years of English rule many artistes were commission to paint portraits of planters and their families, some of these artistes did landscape paintings as well. These paintings gave their viewers a romantic perspective of this sugar colony, painting an ideal if not glorious picture of sugar estates. Foremost among these artistes that came are James Hakewell and Joseph Bartholomew (J.B.) Kidd, both painters have created picturesque views of Jamaica from Kingston to Montego bay. There is however no mention of works of art produced by any of the African slaves.

It would be a great injustice to speak of British art in Jamaica and not mention Isaac Mendez Belasario, a man whose work is still being admired by many. As recently as December 2007 the Yale Center for British Art, Yale University held an exhibition which focused on the work of Belasario while he sojourned in Jamaica. Perhaps Belasario’s worked is so loved because he gave a close up intimate portrait of people, his works were so striking in resemblance to their subjects that it baffled viewers. The Jamaica Herald and Commercial Advertiser of July 29, 1835 of Belasario wrote: “to those who are lovers of art, who delight in contemplating miniature resemblances of human face divine, we earnestly recommend an early visit to the studio of Mr. Belasario at south east corner of the parade in this city…To say that Mr. Belasario deserves great credit is but faint praise to appreciate his merit properly, the pictures must be seen.” Belasario captured with paint and brush, landscapes, the whites of genteel society and the Negros in their daily occupation. Some of his works as well as that of Hakewell and J.B. Kidd may be viewed at the National Library of Jamaica.

The relics of English sculptures in Jamaica cannot be ignored. When English art in Jamaica is spoken of, sculptured productions cannot be overlooked, as several such pieces may be seen across the island especially in churches. Busts of notable Jamaicans are also found at various locations. Foremost among the English Sculptors that have worked in Jamaica is John Bacon. Bacon sculpted the bust of King George III and the King was greatly pleased with this representation of himself. Thus in 1784 Bacon was commissioned to create the Rodney Memorial which still stands in Spanish Town, Jamaica.