With this post, we launch a new series of features on the pioneers of modern Jamaican art. This article was written by O’Neil Lawrence who acts as Assistant Curator.
Born on September 13th 1911 in Kingston, Jamaica, David “Jack” Pottinger is considered by many to be one of Jamaica’s finest painters. He grew up on Prince Street in downtown Kingston, influenced by the rhythm of life vendors and many Pocomania meetings that took place there. He took a course in house painting, paid for by his mother so that he could do it professionally, and also embarked on the enterprise of sign painting at the encouragement of a Mr. Bailey: a butcher who believed there was something more to this young house painter. And there was; he was to become a central figure in the early defining years of the nationalist movement.
In the early 1940’s the young house and now sign painter was befriended by Ralph Campbell – another pioneering Jamaican artist – who encouraged him to participate in classes being taught by Edna Manley at the Institute of Jamaica’s Junior Centre. Though he was reluctant at first, Pottinger’s talent blossomed under the tutelage of Edna Manley: while he already knew how to use colour but it was the fundamentals of drawing that he learned from Edna Manley that provided him with a solid foundation for his artistic work. By 1945 the works that he produced placed him firmly among the key figures of what came to be known as the “Institute Group,” the first coherent Jamaican art movement.
For the next sixty years Pottinger established himself as the prime painter of views of downtown Kingston. To quote the National Gallery’s Chief Curator Dr. David Boxer:
If [Albert] Huie is the rural landscapist of the nationalist movement par excellence then Pottinger can be defined as his urban counterpart. A self-portrait or two, a handful of landscapes usually drawn from the outskirts of Kingston, a few “still lifes” and fewer still religious paintings aside, Pottinger’s life-work has been devoted to a single prescribed subject, but a subject of myriad possibilities: the streets and lanes, the sidewalks, buildings and backyards of old Kingston and the parade of walking, jostling, cart-pushing, higglering, swaying-to-the-spirit neighbours that move, squat, lounge, hawk, haggle on the byways of the old city where he was born. This prescribed subject and consistency and quality of his vision are the principal characteristics of his art.
During his career his palette darkened significantly and his paintings took on a more brooding character. Colour eventually stopped being merely functionally descriptive and began to be truly emotive. His brushstrokes became more and more impassioned while expressive distortions such as the attenuated figures which we find in his masterwork Walk Tall (1969) enter his work. His development arguably transformed him into an authentic Jamaican master.
In his later years however he would eventually abandon these radical distortions and return to his earlier style. This was not a regression; for he approached his subject matter with a far more accomplished and vibrant use of paint and colour. His compositions grew more complex and were now more rigid in their geometry. With a style that could be referred to as “rejuvenated realism” he continued to elaborate on his oeuvre of Kingston street-side life.
Although he was a regular exhibitor in the Institute of Jamaica’s All- Island Exhibitions of Painting and the National Gallery’s National Exhibitions, Pottinger held few solo exhibitions during the sixty years of his career. Notable among those however were his 1974 and 1977 showings at Bolivar Gallery and his 1988 and 1990 exhibitions at the Mutual Life Gallery. Pottinger was awarded the silver Musgrave medal in 1987 and the Order of Distinction the same year. In 2001 to mark his 90th birthday the National Gallery mounted a full scale retrospective of his work. On February 13th 2002, David “Jack” Pottinger passed away leaving a rich legacy of work behind.