Barrington Watson - Dancer at Rest (c1962), Collection: NGJ

Barrington Watson – Dancer at Rest (c1962), Collection: NGJ

The Jamaican Master Painter Barrington Watson passed away last month. Here is part I of the two-part post based on Veerle Poupeye’s essay for the 2012 Barrington Watson retrospective catalogue. This essay places Barrington Watson in the context of post-Independence art.

Barrington Watson’s Appeal

Most persons familiar with the Jamaican art world will agree that Barrington Watson is one of Jamaica’s most popular and acclaimed artists.[1] This is supported by the high market value of his work and the enthusiastic and loyal support he has garnered from major Jamaican art patrons and collectors. Watson has also received significant official recognition and was in 2006 bestowed the Order of Jamaica, the highest national honor ever given to a Jamaican visual artist other than Edna Manley, who held the Order of Merit. Watson’s appeal reaches across Jamaica’s social boundaries, beyond the social class that typically supports fine art, and masterpieces such as Mother and Child (1958) and Conversation (1981) are among the most popular works of art in the National Gallery collection.

The question arises exactly why Barrington Watson’s work has such strong appeal. Other than its obvious artistic merit, there is his capacity to produce powerfully iconic and highly relatable images – Mother and Child (1958) and Conversation (1981) key among them. Even his less iconic work strongly appeals to Jamaican cultural sensibilities, however, and to gain fuller understanding of why this is so, it is necessary to see his work in its broader social and cultural context, particularly of the ideas about art and the artist that have emerged in postcolonial Jamaica.

Barrington Watson - Washer Women (1966), Collection: NGJ

Barrington Watson – Washer Women (1966), Collection: NGJ

Art and Independence

The years around Independence were, as the artist and critic Gloria Escoffery has argued, characterized by a combination of great ambition and sometimes naïve idealism.[2] The period was marked by the advent of a new generation of artists, most of whom had studied abroad and returned to the island eager to contribute to the development of Jamaican art and to national development, generally. Arguably the three most influential among them were Karl Parboosingh, who had studied in Paris, New York and Mexico; Eugene Hyde, who had studied in California; and Barrington Watson, who had studied in London and several continental European academies. They were also pioneers where they studied: Watson had been among the first black students at the Royal College of Art – Frank Bowling from Guyana was another. These young artists returned home with new ideas about art – high modernist in the case of Parboosingh and Hyde and academic-realist in the case of Watson – and had an ambitious, cosmopolitan outlook which challenged the more insular tenets of earlier nationalist art. Their subject matter was still recognizably Jamaican but they combined this with formal experimentation, a preference for monumental scale that transcended the modest “living room formats” used by the nationalist school, and a more critical and demanding attitude.

Karl Parboosingh - Cement Company (1966), A.D. Scott Collection, NGJ

Karl Parboosingh – Cement Company (1966), A.D. Scott Collection, NGJ

Predictably, there were tensions between these ambitious young artists and their artistic elders – the pioneers of the nationalist school – and this went beyond mere aesthetic differences. Watson stated in a 1984 interview that the older artists “were in a different mould, and they were already established and not prepared to make the big breakout in the way we were”[3] and:

The Edna Manley, the [Junior Center director] Robert Verity and that lot were doing a really good job in the arts before [but it] had something like a colonial approach to it in a sense. It was [a] sort of ‘giving a break to a talented youngster’ type of thing […] They patronized a lot of the artists and kept them at a certain level, unfortunately or inadvertently, by this kind of patronizing approach.[4]

Watson and his colleagues were not interested in obtaining any “from the top down” patronage but in self-empowerment – and it is implied, as black postcolonial artists – and they were quite successful in becoming outspoken public figures that functioned as cultural icons and self-sufficient entrepreneurs.

Eugene Hyde - Good Friday (Casualties, 1978), Collection: NGJ

Eugene Hyde – Good Friday (Casualties, 1978), Collection: NGJ

Watson, Hyde and Parboosingh asserted themselves as professional artists and made unprecedented public demands about the support Jamaican society should provide for their work. They were the principals of the Contemporary Jamaican Artists’ Association (CJAA) which was active from 1964 to 1974 and which was a key forum for the redefinitions of Jamaican art that were taking place at that time. Watson was in 1962 appointed as Director of Studies of the Jamaica School of Art and Craft which he, in a move that reflected a more assertive commitment to notions of high art, renamed the Jamaica School of Art, thus dropping the “craft.” He transformed the previously informal, part-time school into a full-time institution with a four-year diploma curriculum, modeled after the then English art school system.[5] This further contributed to the professionalization of the arts and better equipped graduates for further studies abroad.

The ideas and preferences of this post-Independence generation however resulted in art that could be construed as elitist and “foreign” and a departure from the indigenizing, nation-building agenda of the nationalist school – the American art critic and Haitian art promoter Seldon Rodman dismissively described Eugene Hyde’s work as “perfectly indigenous to Madison Avenue”[6] – but this new generation was more proactively involved in bringing their art into the public domain. Self-promotion was a factor in these initiatives but the idealism of the CJAA members was genuine. They wished to create art that would be meaningful to the new, progressive Jamaica and to stimulate new thinking, shifting the focus of local art production from the affirmative to the critical. Hyde stated in 1964:

[The] artist needs to be aware of public interest. This doesn’t necessarily mean compliance. In fact one wishes there was more counter-reaction to the artist from the public. It is hard to describe just what we’re seeking, but it is a kind of friction, a sort of force, one against the other, which the artist must have, if he is not to exist in a vacuum.[7]

Not surprisingly, the post-Independence generation actively was actively involved in public art projects. Parboosingh, who was a student of David Alfaro Siqueiros, produced his first of many murals in 1956, on the theme of the Jamaican coffee industry, for the Ministry of Agriculture.[8] Eugene Hyde and Barrington also produced several mural paintings, such as the latter’s Our Heritage (1974) mural at Olympia.

Barrington Watson - Barbara (c1962), Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection, NGJ

Barrington Watson – Barbara (c1962), Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection, NGJ

New opportunities were also created by the economic expansion in mining, manufacturing and tourism, and the associated bout of office and hotel construction, which facilitated mural commissions and corporate art collections. The artists’ demands for active patronage from the private and public sector contributed to a proposed law that a set percentage of the cost of public buildings should be spent on art.[9] Organizations such as the Bank of Jamaica, which moved to a new high-rise on the Kingston Waterfront in 1975, established a major art collection in response. Barrington Watson chaired the central bank’s initial acquisitions committee and was the author of several of its initial commissions, such as the mural-size painting The Garden Party and the mixed media installation Trust, which was produced in collaboration with the ceramicist Cecil Baugh. The 1960s also saw the appearance of the first major private art collectors in Jamaica and the young artists formed close associations with them. This included A.D. Scott, a civil engineer, and the young entrepreneur Aaron Matalon, who headed the Jamaica Manufacturers Association. Scott became the CJAA chairman and played an important role in that organization’s activities.

The professionalization and expansion of the Jamaican art world was also evident in the establishment of commercial galleries. The first major local gallery, the Hill’s Art Gallery had opened in November 1953 on Harbour Street in Kingston. The Hill’s Art Gallery sold a wide range of Jamaican art, including the work of mainstream artists such as Alexander Cooper, Osmond Watson and Eric Smith and self-taught artists such as Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds and Gaston Tabois, along with gift items and art materials. Tourists were still the primary buyers of Jamaican art but local patronage was developing. The guest speaker at the Gallery’s 10th anniversary exhibition in 1963, the Gleaner editor Theodore Sealy, claimed that 40 % of sales were to local buyers and clearly regarded this as a notable achievement in the development of local art patronage.[10]

The Hill’s Gallery did not meet the modernist sensibilities of the new generation, however, and in 1964 the CJAA opened its own gallery, simply named the Gallery. It was the first modern gallery space in Jamaica, in which modernist conventions about how to display art were followed, and it more assertively targeted local patronage. The Gallery showed the work of its principals and of like-minded artists such as Kofi Kayiga (né Ricardo Wilkins), Milton Harley and George Rodney – all pioneers of abstract painting in Jamaica. The Gallery not only served as an exhibition space but also organized regular gatherings of artists and patrons, which provided a forum for the emerging artistic community. In 1970, Hyde opened his own gallery, the John Peartree Gallery, which provided space for young avant-garde artists such as David Boxer, who had solo exhibitions there in 1976 and 1979. Watson followed suit in 1974, when he established Gallery Barrington, although this gallery served primarily to expose his own work, and has operated several galleries since then. A.D. Scott established his Olympia International Art Centre in 1974, as an expansion of the hotel and apartment complex he had previously built near the UWI campus on the north-eastern outskirts of Kingston. In an effort to integrate art and life, Olympia housed his substantial collection, hosted occasional exhibitions and provided housing for some artists.

Our Heritage, 1974, at Olympia

Our Heritage, 1974, at Olympia

As the name “the Olympia International Art Centre” suggests, the CJAA generation was not only interested in cultivating local patronage but wanted to see Jamaican art on the international stage and they clearly saw themselves as ambassadors of the modern, progressive image independent Jamaica was trying to project. Not surprisingly, it is during the 1960s that the first survey exhibitions of Jamaican art were toured in North America and Europe. The Face of Jamaica, which toured England and Germany in 1963 and 1964, was organized and vigorously promoted by the Jamaican Government and sponsored by Pott Rums, the importers of Jamaican rum in West Germany. The Art of Jamaica was shown at the Kaiser Center Gallery, in Oakland, California in 1964 and sponsored by the Kaiser Bauxite Company, and Jamaican Art, which featured the work of Albert Huie and Barrington Watson, was sponsored by the Royal Bank and Alcan, and shown at the latter’s headquarters in Montreal, also in 1965. These sponsored exhibitions illustrate the close association between the economic development efforts and artistic promotion at that time. Jamaican artists also started participating more proactively in major international exhibitions: Barrington Watson, for instance, was included in the Art of Latin America and Spain (1963) exhibition in Madrid, which featured 700 works from 27 countries, and participated in the 1967 Spanish Biennial in Barcelona, where he won the award for his painting Athlete’s Nightmare.

The CJAA generation not only wished to bring Jamaican art to the world but also wished to put the island on the map as an art destination. Parboosingh for many years tried to establish an international artists’ colony, initially in scenic St Mary and later in Port Henderson near Kingston, but was unable to rally enough public support to realize his plans – A.D. Scott’s Olympia concept was in part derived from these ideas and Parboosingh became the first artist-in-residence there. More intensive contacts were also fostered with the rest of the Caribbean, mainly by means of exchange visits and exhibitions, and many of these contacts were fostered in London, which had a fast growing Caribbean migrant population and had become a gathering point for artists and art students from the Anglophone Caribbean.[11] Aubrey Williams from Guyana and Erwin de Vries from Suriname visited Jamaica for extended periods from the late 1960s onwards and were close associates of Watson, Parboosingh and Hyde.

It is also during this period that the first professional critics appeared: the Polish expatriate Ignacy Eker, who later changed his name to Andrew Hope; the Jamaican playwright and later diplomat Norman Rae; and the poet Basil MacFarlane. MacFarlane wrote for the PNP organ, Public Opinion, while Eker and Rae wrote for the Gleaner. Interesting, their initial reviews of the work of the CJAA artists were hesitant and concerned with the “foreignness” of their work. Eker’s review of Barrington Watson’s first Jamaican solo exhibition at the Tom Redcam Library in 1961 rather scathingly stated that his pictures displayed “the mannerisms rather than the virtues of conventional British art” and accused him of “aesthetic nihilism.”[12] Rae’s review of the same exhibition was more complimentary but suggested that Watson, who had been trained to paint the “Northern light” of England, had difficulty capturing the light and tonalities of the Jamaican environment.[13] The artists and critics soon found common cause, however, and Eker, in particular, became a passionate advocate for Watson’s art and artistic vision in the 1970s and 80s.

As was intimated throughout the discussion thus far, the developments in the art world did not occur in isolation but were an integral part of the broader cultural, social and political changes that were taking place in Jamaica around Independence. The debates that shaped the art world reflected the emergence of postcolonial civil society in Jamaica, the development of the supporting infrastructure and policies was in keeping with the overall development vision that was being shaped in the political arena, while more vigorous private art patronage was made possible by the emergence of a new, politically and economically empowered professional class, whose ideals and aspirations were embodied in the work of the Independence generation artists.

Barrington Watson at his Eastwood Park studio in 1967

Barrington Watson at his Eastwood Park studio in 1967


[1] This essay is adapted from sections of Veerle Poupeye’s doctoral dissertation Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica (Emory University, 2011) – all rights reserved by the author.

[2] Escoffery, Gloria. “The Impact of Nationhood: The Art World in the Early Sixties.” Jamaica Journal 19, no. 3 (1986): 43-49.

[3] Waugh, Elizabeth. “Emergent Art and National Identity in Jamaica, 1920s to the Present.” Ph. D. Dissertation, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 1987, 136.

[4] Ibid., 137.

[5] Strictly spoken, a full-time curriculum with a 2-year intermediate certificate followed by a 2-year diploma course, had already been introduced by Barrington Watson’s predecessor, the English painter Robert Sawyers, in the 1961-62 school year, but this programme was not fully implemented. It was superseded by Barrington’s more stringent diploma programme the following year, which produced the first formal graduates of the Jamaica School of Art (See: Poupeye-Rammelaere, Veerle. Forty Years: Edna Manley School for the Visual Arts. Kingston, Jamaica: Edna Manley School for the Visual Arts and National Gallery of Jamaica, 1990, 25).

[6] Rodman, Selden. The Caribbean. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1968, 35.

[7] Gloudon, Barbara. “Art and the Public.” Gleaner, September 18, 1964, 3.

[8] This mural was funded by the Committee for Improvement of the Arts, an initiative of the Norman Manley administration, which also commissioned murals by other, older artists, such the ones Carl Abrahams produced for the Banana Board around the same time (See: “Personal Mention: New Mural.” Gleaner, May 17, 1956, 18).

[9] The law was never enacted and there are conflicting accounts about the actual percentage but Barbados is at the time of writing considering a 2.5 % requirement.

[10] Waugh, Op. Cit., 117.

[11] Walmsley, Anne. The Caribbean Artists Movement 1966-1972: A Literary and Cultural History. London: New Beacon, 1992.

[12] Eker, Ignacy. “Somewhere between Camden and Euston.” Gleaner, October (exact date unknown) 1961 (Barrington Watson scrapbooks).

[13] Rae, Norman. “Northern Light.” Gleaner, October (exact date unknown) 1961.



  1. Pingback: Barrington Watson in Context – Part II | National Gallery of Jamaica Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s