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.
John Dunkley’s life as an artist, as told by his widow Cassie
“His father, who was in Panama, sent for him so he travelled out. Unlucky for him his father died and was buried the day before he landed. Although he was deprived of his father’s wealth, Dunkley was not discouraged and started to earn a livelihood for himself. He travelled from Panama to Colon to Costa Rica, Chiriqui David and thence to Camaguey […] He started out for California to study dentistry when a revolution took place and he lost all of his belongings, money, clothing etc., only his life was spared. He ran for miles in woodland tearing off clothes and shoes until he was left in rags. He was lucky, as being a Free-Mason he was able to give the Mason’s distress sign and it was answered by a Mason on a passing ship and he was welcomed on board. […] He immediately signed on as a sailor and went travelling. He went to England, Scotland, North and South America and numerous other places. […] He went back to Chiriqui where he decided to settle down as a barber by trade. He worked hard at his barbering and in his spare time would do some painting on canvas and he got an insight of the art from Clarence Rock, who was the most prominent photographer in Panama. He kept on painting, giving the paintings to his friends and left quite a lot there.
He returned to Jamaica in 1926 and settled down. He married Cassie Fraser and took life more seriously as he had responsibilities to meet. He was fortunate in his marriage as his wife stuck by him and they both lived happily together. […] He continued painting till one day as he sat alone in his barber shop [on Princess Street in Downtown Kingston] he was approached by a white gentleman who had been attracted by the small signs which made up the screen of his shop. This gentleman, who introduced himself as Mr. Delves Molesworth [then the Secretary of the Institute of Jamaica], exclaimed ‘At last I have discovered a hidden artist!’ Mr. Molesworth encouraged him to keep on painting as he knew that one day he would achieve his goal. […] Dunkley was a poor but respectable man. His life made him beloved by all who associated with him.[…] His work was criticised by many who did not know his worth as he was the only imaginative painter in the island and one could not teach him as he was self-taught.
Years rolled over Dunkley’s head but he still continued to work harder, cutting wood and carving in African style. […] When the Sandy Gully Air Base was being sighted by President Roosevelt of America, he painted him, and from the first piece of Lignum Vitae wood that was cut down, a huge piece, he carved an African Man sitting down and named him Sandy Gully. Dunkley kept all these paintings and carvings all these years with an aim in view, hoping that one day he would achieve his goal. […] Health began to fail poor Dunkley and he was ill for months. His wife tried with the help of several doctors to prolong his life but death came to him on the 17th of February, 1947. His funeral was largely attended by the rich and poor. A lot was said of him for days in the papers which were the only time his worth was ever told.”
John Dunkley’s output as a painter was small. Less than fifty paintings are known, but they suffice to demonstrate a unique and compelling aesthetic allowing him to assume the rank of Jamaica’s greatest painter. His known oeuvre spans little more than a decade, and as he kept his works and continued to refine or overwork them, there is no clearly discernible development.
Most of Dunkley’s paintings are landscapes: imagined landscapes that seem full of a decided hidden symbolism. Typically, the vegetation seems fantastic, trees or shrubs with overblown inflorescences are counter counterpointed by bare truncated branches, often depicted in a manner that encourages their reading as phallic symbols. Small animals; crabs, birds, a mongoose, a rabbit and often spiders negotiating complex webs, frequent these dark disturbing woodlands. Only rarely does a human figure intrude. Man is implied however in the occasional house seen in the distance or at the edge of the wood, but more so in what is surely Dunkley’s most persistent motif, the path or road that pushes through the vegetation often suggesting great depth. In his famous Back to Nature (c1939), the path bifurcates in the foreground to encircle a heart shaped grave. Footprints of the departed hauntingly trod the path.
There is a distinct group which seem more more expansive, and these I suspect were his last works, Lonely Road, Springboard, Woman Feeding Fish, Footbridge where the accustomed claustrophobia, imparted by dense bracketing vegetation, gives way now to clearer skies, white now rather than grey and with far fewer elements within the landscape. In some of them the black outlines of a spare vegetation is silhouetted against the sky. […] Unrealistic touches, like the isolated springboard in Springboard, seem out of context, the leaves pushing up between the cracks in Woman Feeding Fish, the unstable support of the bridge in Footbridge, contribute to the disquiet of these works.
Contemporary events occasionally inspired him. There is a painting/collage of Joe Louis and in the Good Shepherd (c1938) he paints the tall gangly figure of the populist politician Alexander Bustamante gathering flocks of sheep, while in the distance a few straggly goats run away. […]
Dunkley also produced a small body of sculptures, mostly wood-carvings. Few are however as accomplished as his paintings. Perhaps his finest works in this medium are Old Joe, a small but intense portrait of a black man clasping his knees and bent in prayer, and Sandy Gully (1940), a seated portrait of a proud Jamaican man carved from the first lignum-vitae tree cut down in preparation for the building of the American air base in Jamaica. […]
After a memorial exhibition in 1947 and a joint Dunkley/Daley exhibition in 1960 – both at the Institute of Jamaica – Dunkley was virtually a forgotten artist. With the resurrection of a fair percentage of his oeuvre in the National Gallery’s retrospective in 1977, with its accompanying illustrated catalogue, and the subsequent permanent display of a good representative collection of his work, Dunkley has regained his position in the public’s eye as a true Jamaican master.