Natural Histories: Some Thoughts on John Dunkley

Our current Natural Histories exhibition includes John Dunkley’s “Back to Nature” (c1939) and this prompted the following reflection on Dunkley and his work.

John Dunkley - Back to Nature (1939), mixed media on board, Collection: NGJ

John Dunkley – Back to Nature (1939), mixed media on board, Collection: NGJ

John Dunkley’s life was typical of that of many Jamaicans of his generation. He was born in Savanna-la-Mar on December 10, 1891 and died in Kingston on February 17, 1947. As a young man, Dunkley travelled to Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba and also worked as a sailor, before returning to Jamaica in 1926 where he settled in Kingston and established a barber shop. His early biography is sketchy but it is well possible that Dunkley worked on the Panama Canal or with the United Fruit Company – a personal connection to the banana industry is suggested by his best known painting, Banana Plantation (c1945). According to his widow Cassie, Dunkley started painting while he was outside of Jamaica and was introduced to art by a well-known Panama-based photographer, Clarence Rock, but we have to date not been able to identify this photographer. (Dunkley 1948)

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John Dunkley (1891-1947)

John Dunkley, Banana Plantation (c1945)

While we have temporarily closed the Early Intuitives gallery, to facilitate the next phase of the re-installation of our permanent collection, we present a post on one of the three artists featured in that gallery, John Dunkley (the others are David Miller Senior and Junior). The first part of this post is excerpted from what his widow Cassie Dunkley wrote in 1948, on the first anniversary of her husband’s death, when a commemorative exhibition was held at the Institute of Jamaica. It narrates Dunkley’s early and obviously quite adventurous life as a young Jamaican migrant worker and sailor, followed by his years in Kingston as a struggling artist. The the second part is adapted from a biographical entry written for the Dictionary of Black Artists by NGJ Chief Curator, Dr. David Boxer.  John Dunkley was born in Savanna-la-Mar on December 10, 1891 and died in Kingston on February 17, 1947.

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