1st National Hero
In 2002, the paramount chief of the Black Caribs of St Vincent, Chatoyer, (Chatawe), was declared the National Hero of St. Vincent. The visual representation of Chatoyer as a nationalist icon of an independent Caribbean state in the 21st century was set in place by the paintings and engravings of him, which were done by an Italian artist, Agostino Brunias, in the 18th century. Today his paintings and engravings sell for thousands and in the case of the larger paintings for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the auction houses of London and New York. His art was escapist as it was romantic, it distorted the harsh realities of slavery in St Vincent and the Lesser Antilles so as to satisfy his absentee planter clientele and yet in its detail it reveals aspects of Caribbean heritage that are impossible to glean from the texts of documentary archives. Historic illustrations in the tourism literature of St Vincent today still use Brunias' engravings to depict an idyllic plantation society in tune with the demands of the tourism product which, in matters of history prefers a selective memory in the same way that the plantocracy favoured a selective depiction of reality.
Agostino Brunias was born in Rome in 1730 and was hired by the leading 18th century architect Robert Adam to work with him in England, doing decorative murals and drafting designs for the stately homes that Adam was building across Britain. During this period Brunias made the acquaintance of William Young, who in 1764 was appointed President of the Commission for the Sale of Lands in the Ceded Islands, which included St Vincent. In this position Young purchased property on the island including land on the west coast along the borders of what the British chose to declare as Carib territory. Brunias traveled with Young as his personal artist recording the Commissioner's progress and the visual context of his exploits. Yellow Caribs, Black Caribs, enslaved Africans and the free 'people of colour' of St Vincent all become subjects of Brunias' brush. This paper seeks to place these images in the context of their times so that they can be better understood today.
Recording an Adventure
Agostino Brunias began his art studies in Rome at the Academia di San Luca, where he won 3rd prize in the second class for painting in 1754. Like many other Italian artists of the period he immediately found work, painting scenes of the classical ruins and doing souvenir portraits for wealthy British visitors who were sightseeing in the city during the mid-eighteenth century as part of their "Grand Tour" of Europe. This was an extended expedition, a mixture of early tourism and education in the field, that was undertaken by wealthy young British gentlemen, and occasionally ladies, often accompanied by tutors or experts in classical history and art. Brunias was noticed by the Scottish architect Robert Adam, who as part of his tour was sketching Roman architecture, admiring Palladian buildings and collecting ideas that he would later use to great effect in designing and constructing some of the most fabulous stately homes in England.
Adam is considered to be the greatest British architect of the later 18th century and was equally if not more brilliant as a decorator, furniture designer and the leader of neo-classical and neo-Gothic taste at the time. Adam offered Brunias a job as a draughtsman and decorative artist in the studio that he had set up in Rome during most of the four years, from 1754 to 1758, that he was on his Grand Tour. He said of Brunias that he had been "bred a painter" but was "converted into an architect" by his French assistant cum guide, Charles-Louis Clerisseau and himself. "He does all my ornaments and all my figures vastly well." In 1758 Adams took Brunias and most of his studio staff along with him to London where he set Brunias to work doing architectural drawings and painting friezes, ceilings and decorative murals in Adam houses across the country.1
It was during one of these commissions that Brunias was introduced to Sir William Young, who, in December 1764 was preparing to go out to take up an official position in the recently captured islands of the Southern Caribbees, as they were called at the time. Early in 1764, Minister George Grenville nominated Young to be the first Commissioner and Receiver for sale of lands in the ceded islands of Dominica, St Vincent, Grenada and Tobago. These islands had been granted, or ceded, to Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763 that ended the Seven Years War. They were to be governed as a group with headquarters in Grenada.
1. Family of Sir William Young by Johan Zoffany, R.A. (1733-1810). Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Sir William's meeting with Brunias coincided with a falling out between Brunias and Adam over living conditions, pay and what appear to have been complaints by Brunias about the lack of accreditation of his work.2 In the circumstances Brunias readily acceded to Young's offer to accompany him to the Caribbee Islands as his personal artist. It was an attachment that allowed him an honourable escape and an opportunity for adventure. He was to act as the recorder of Young's progress. In effect he would do in the Caribbean, what he had done for the English tourists in Rome; providing in paint, snapshots of their experiences and souvenirs of the places they had visited, in those days before photography.
2. Sir William Young, 1st Bart (1725-1788) & Sir William Young 2nd Bart (1750-1815)
In late 1764 Sir William Young and his entourage, including Agostino Brunias, set sail for Barbados on "the first of six West Indian voyages made by Sir William in his public employ." In all, Young was away from his family for eight years from 1764 to 1773. The Board of Land Commissioners, of which Sir William was President, had its first meeting in Bridgetown on 10 January 1765. It was here that Brunias did his first sketches on the islands and one in particular, which was later made into an engraving "Barbados Mulatto Girl".3 With their preliminary business done, the Commissioners set sail again to dispose of Britain's latest conquests. The sales of land commenced in Tobago on 14 May 1765, at St Vincent on the 28th May and on Dominica in June. Sir William purchased some of the best pieces of real estate on all three islands. 'Insider trading' was obviously not an issue in the 18th century.
3. The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl
Sir William juggled his duties as Commissioner of Lands and his post in Dominica with periodic visits to his estates in St Vincent and Tobago. Brunias accompanied him on these trips, which included social calls on Grenada, St Kitts and Barbados. Young recorded "110 voyages of a like nature performed in the course of nine years amongst the ceded islands on the service of the Commission for the sale of lands."
Artist in the field 1765-1768
Once he set up his easel in the tropics, Brunias readily adapted to his new environment. Forested mountains, rivers, unusual plants and scenes of Creole life replaced the vine covered ruins of the Eternal City peopled by colourful Italian peasants. These were the recurrent images that he and other Italian painters had produced in response to the market thrown up by the Grand Tour. In the West Indian case, the clientele was rather similar, for absentee planters living on their accumulating wealth in Britain wanted pictures of their properties and sugar works as evidence of their investments and interests across the Atlantic. While other visiting artists to the West Indies were sketching the forts, ports and rural plantation scenes of the sugar-rich islands, Brunias was looking closely at the people around him. There were the indigenous Caribs and enslaved West Africans who were being transported to St Vincent in increasing numbers as British plantations were established after 1763. Thomas Atwood, who was a resident magistrate, attorney and Dominica's 18th century historian, describes a most diverse white population in these new colonies. "English, French, Spaniards, Italians, and Genoese, who are natives of those countries in Europe, or their issue, born in the West Indies; which are called Creoles, to distinguish them from Europeans."
In the stratified British colonial society that quickly fell into place on St Vincent and the other ceded islands, Brunias was an outsider on several levels. He was not an Englishman or a Scotsman, both of which nationalities were in the vanguard of settlement; he was a Roman Catholic in a colony that discriminated against the mainly French Roman Catholic minority in preference to members of the established Church of England, the church of the State; and his status as a draughtsman placed him just one rung above the level of Sir William Young's white servants. The other Italians already in the islands made their living mainly as contract lumbermen clearing virgin forest for the opening of plantations. Just as Adam referred to Brunias as his draughtsman, so did Sir William. His son notes Brunias' presence in his father's entourage obliquely when he lists the costs of "deputies, extra clerks, draftsman and contingencies in the islands of Grenada, Dominica, St Vincents, Tobago, Becuya and the Grenadines."
His social equivalents in St. Vincent were the "free people of colour", the mainly French mulattoes who, along with yeoman farmers from France had settled in St Vincent among the Caribs prior to the conquest by the British. Those who stayed on were either owners of small coffee estates in the hills or petty tradesmen in Kingstown. It was among these people that Brunias pursued his social life and it was among their type that he eventually sired a family in Dominica. He related easily to them and this is clearly reflected in his art. A white face is seldom seen except if painted by special commission as in "Pacification with Maroon Negroes" where British soldiers form the right half of the picture while the Black Caribs stand on the left. One exception to this tendency is the face of Brunias himself, which he slips into one of his many paintings of washerwomen, depicting himself as a voyeur hiding in the bushes. And perhaps it is he who makes an appearance again as the white man standing in the doorway of a hut observing "A Cudgelling Match between French and English Negroes in the Island of Dominica"
With Young as his patron he had the time and facilities that are ideal to the artist. The Commissioner did not have a reputation for skimping on his luxuries, even in the frontier setting of the "the ceded islands", which were then the Empire's newest and rawest possessions. Here it was said, "he lived in the style of a prince". He had his own traveling musicians and brought out his personal servants from England along with his silverware, linen and furniture. He imported deer to provide him with venison and peacocks to parade across the lawns of his villa overlooking Calliaqua Bay on St Vincent and later at Government House in Roseau, Dominica. The Villa area in southern St Vincent is named after Sir William's residence, which was unusually sumptuous in its décor, boasting a grand ballroom and paintings by Brunias, all of which were destroyed in 1795 during the second "Carib War". But that was some thirty years in the future. Of that earlier period there is the legend of Chief Chatoyer passing through Villa Estate and admiring two of Sir William's fine horses, which the Commissioner immediately gave to him. In return, Chatoyer is said to have "looked across the strait and pointed to the island and told Sir William he was more than welcome to it if he so desired."4 Brunias features Young Island in one of his engravings.
Even in his official affairs Sir William ensured that the finer trappings of the British aristocracy were transported across the Atlantic and planted upon rain-drenched volcanic islands amidst the bland brutishness of a colonizing plantocracy. Years later, his son, also named William, recalled of his father that "He recommended, he solicited; he invited to settlements in a wilderness, with the voice of music, and fine arts; he made jovial parties of colonisation...and few who ventured within the charm of his society could not long resist his example or his persuasions, to enlist in the undertaking...and his bounteous entertainment, necessarily unremitting, from a succession of unprovided friends (for in enterprises of hazard all are friends) was to be defrayed at the charge of the individual first Commissioner."
Young was made Lieutenant Governor of Dominica in 1768 but soon the planters there were demanding their own separate Assembly, and not for the first time was a federated government of the Caribbees broken up. Sir William was chosen to be the first Governor of the new government and was sworn in on 17 November 1770. However his main private interests at the time were in St Vincent. The contrast between pioneers hacking their way into a jungle frontier over rain-drenched volcanic peaks and the ornate furniture, chandeliers, crystal, paintings, entertainments and fine wine lavishly provided by an 18th century Man of Sensibility gave this enterprise an aura of exoticism that is reflected in the work of Brunias.
The subjects of his paintings and engravings include dancing in St Vincent and Dominica, women washing clothes in the rivers, cudgeling matches or 'stick licking', market scenes and expensively dressed free people of the 18th century. His near-nude washerwomen on the luxuriant banks of streams add a prophetic touch of the primitive Gauguin to the style that Brunias followed. Pictorial accounts of maroons, the escaped slaves who had taken to the hills, and the Black Caribs of St Vincent, particularly the chief Chatoyer, occupied his attention. Brunias worked on watercolours, sketches and oil paintings in the islands. These originals on canvas, wood or paper were then taken to England where they were redesigned as engravings. It was a period when there was great demand in Europe for engraved prints on all subjects. Many of the figures seen in his paintings can be identified in the prints rearranged in various ways to suit the different medium. In most cases the original images are reversed when transferred to the metal plate and printed. Some of the characters appear several times. Two women as flower girls turn up again as spectators to a dance or may be observed in the corner of a group promenading along a riverbank. Most of them were published in the years after his term with Young was over, while several were produced after they were both dead. Most are dedicated with great flourish to his patron and other colonial personalities associated with the islands.5 A number of Brunias works on paper were included in a sale at Christies auction house in 1785. These were used freely by the engravers and printers who got their hands on them, so that many of the "Brunias prints" published may have had little input from the artist himself in the final process.
Engravings made up from various paintings by Brunias were used to illustrate the important plantocratic account of Britain's exploits in the region, 'The History Civil and Commercial of the British Colonies in the West Indies' by Bryan Edwards. These prints appeared in the second edition (1794) and later editions (1801 and 1818-1819). The images conveyed by his engravings complements Bryan Edward's text, which used a combination of history and contemporary reports to launch an unabashed defence of slavery so as to counter the growing voices of opposition coming from the Abolitionists in England at the end of the 18th century. James Pope Hennessy called it the "Myth of the Merry and Contented Slave".
"Its components can best be envisaged as a series of vignettes in the mode of the lovely coloured engravings of slave festivals based on the pictures of the eighteenth-century painter Agostino Brunyas (sic). In this fictive slave existence turbaned Negroes and Negresses sang as they worked the cane or cotton fields by day, spent the night drinking, dancing and making love, reared their families of sportive piccaninnies, and liked and respected the white masters, their indolent whey-faced wives and their spoilt children." He argued that this was a theory, effectively conveyed by Bryan Edwards, which swept back to Europe and was long believed there. To illustrate this view, Hennessy uses the engraving of "A Negro festival in the island of St. Vincent". The same print is used by Eric Williams in his magisterial history of the Caribbean, 'Columbus to Castro', to argue a similar point. Brunias' "Negro Festival" is in effect a propaganda piece.
A Negro Festival
5. Negro Festival in the Island of St. Vincent.
Although it is described as taking place in St Vincent, this engraving combines scenes produced elsewhere on the islands. In the left hand corner of the picture a drummer and female tambourine player reappear from similar scenes painted in Dominica and St Kitts. A dancing couple performs what may be the 'Bélé', now called 'Belaire' in Trinidad. They too can be observed in at least three of his other paintings of the period. A white sailor or overseer asks a decorous Mulatress to dance or at least gestures towards the dancers. To the right a slave lays out plates of pineapples, pears, plums and grapes, symbols of the tropical bounty readily available from the island. This is taken from a Carib basket, a hint of the trade in handcraft, which was carried on between the St Vincent Kalinago and the colonists. In the background are slaves, all dressed in resplendent fashion, partaking of a feast. Luxuriant vegetation and craggy cliffs rise behind the festive gathering.
6. Negroes Dance in the Island of Dominica (or St. Kitts)
7. Negre et negresse de la Martinique dansant la Chica. Par de J. Lachaussee d'apres S.G. Saint-Sauveur (d'apres Agostino Brunias) 1805.
As in his other paintings Brunias records the costume of the time in magnificent detail, but gives what some believe to be an exaggerated conception of the dress and conditions of the age. In a wider study of his prints one can follow the social order of fashion, beginning with the issued denim or chambray livery or 'livre' of the field slaves through to the extravagant material and colours of the freed slaves and mulatto planters. This, and other Brunias prints show the different styles of tying the madras head kerchiefs, of wearing the accordion pleated petticoats, strapped bodices and silk foulards. The detail of their jewelry gives evidence of a considerable trade and creativity in gold and other metal work.
8. Mulatto Promenade.
Mode of dress is still a subject of importance and much debate in the West Indies and is a direct result of historical systems. Without social or educational means of showing their status over others the only way that free blacks could exhibit their superiority was to imitate their former white masters to the extreme and one of the ways this could be done was through clothes. It is well recorded that free blacks and 'people of colour' went to great lengths to outshine the issued wear of the field slaves and factory hands. But the British travel writer Quentin Crewe commenting on Brunias' paintings two hundred years later felt that "however good they are, there is an element of mockery in his paintings, which so often depict black people aping white manners."
However there was a desperation to declare their position as free people, to use fashion to counteract, and indeed to protest, against the social restrictions imposed upon them. This may well have contributed to the excesses of which Thomas Atwood commented: "The free people of colour are remarkably fond of dress and dancing; for the enjoyment of both which they will sacrifice everything that is valuable in their possession... their ladies being usually dressed is silks, silk stockings and shoes; buckles, bracelets and rings of gold and silver, to a considerable value."
9. Negro Festival in the Island of St. Vincent.
This is vividly represented in the controversial "Negro Festival in the Island of St Vincent", which perhaps more accurately represents a party of "free people of colour" than the slave festival that the term "Negro" or "Negre" (synonymous with "slave") indicated in the 18th century. But this is splitting hairs, for whatever the source, it has conveyed its misleading message of merriness and contentment of the enslaved for over two hundred years.
The Fruit Market
10. The Fruit Market at St. Vincent.
The Sunday market was a focal point for plantation society in St Vincent. Apart from its obvious commercial appeal it provided a significant moment of liberation for the enslaved. It allowed them to engage in enterprise for their own benefit, selling produce from their garden plots to obtain money with which to purchase sundry goods such coloured cloth, jewelry and basic utensils for personal adornment and use. In other paintings Brunias has featured more crowded market scenes but in this engraving, "The Fruit Market at St Vincent" it appears more as an encounter with vendors on their way to the main market in Kingstown. As in the engraving of "a Negro festival", Brunias uses fruit and luxuriant vegetation on the right of the picture to conjour up an image of tropical plenty. A melon is proffered to a mulatto mistress and her companion while a man, most likely her slave carrying her basket, observes the transaction. Two other vendors, baskets loaded with fruit, are nearby.
In the background across the bay stand the unmistakable outlines of Young Island and the rocky outcrop of Fort Duvernette, in homage perhaps to Sir William's ownership of these landmarks. This print can be studied in conjunction with a rare watercolour sketch by Brunias showing two of the characters who appear in the picture. Painted on paper, it is entitled in French Creole, "Madame épis Mouchier", (Mistress with head tie) and shows the identical couple that appear in the print. Because of the engraving and printing process they stand in the opposite direction to which they had been painted. These original figures were copied and inserted into the picture by the engraver Brown and published by Thompson in 1804, eight years after Brunias' death. Such scenes of mulatto ladies accompanied by or engaged with black slaves are a common feature of Brunias' work.
13. Couple Caraïbe des Antilles. Sebastien le Clerc (1637-1714). Engraved 1667.
Brunias did several paintings of Caribs in Dominica and St Vincent and these have become important sources of information on the remnants of indigenous culture, as it existed on the islands in the 18th century. One of these interesting oil paintings shows a group of Caribs outside their huts in St Vincent displaying artifacts and adornment that can be related to descriptions of similar scenes given in ethnographic texts of the Caribbean published by French writers during the previous century. The most influential of these were the engravings of Le Clerc, which illustrated Jean Baptiste Du Tertre's 'Histoires generales des Antilles habittees par les Francaise'. Jean Jacques Rousseau noted the accounts of the Caribs contained in this book in formulating his theories on the ideal of the 'Noble Savage'. This concept was taken up in the work of Brunias as he portrayed the last of the Caribs during the peak years of Enlightenment thought in the latter half of the 18th century. While on a visit to England c. 1775-1784 Brunias reworked scenes of Carib life. At Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, for instance, he did "wall paintings of Caribbean aborigines" in the Ante Library, but by the 1870s there was no evidence of them, so they had apparently been painted over. These murals must have drawn heavily on the sketches that he had done among the 'Yellow Caribs' St Vincent.
14. Caribs of St. Vincent. Oil painting.
On the outskirts of the pioneer British settlements such as those of Sir William Young in St Vincent, particularly along the Leeward coast, there were members of the original Kalinago, the inheritors of the previous Native Caribbean cultures on the island. The colonists knew them as the 'yellow' or 'red' Caribs. In "A Family of Chairaibes drawn from the life in St. Vincent" Brunias provides us with an ethnographic study of the people and their material culture. The engraving and the painting are almost identical.
Two types of hut stand in a forest glade, which provides the backdrop for six adults and two infants who display various tools and utensils. The larger hut, a taboui, in the Island Carib language, was of a type used up into the 1950s while in the background stands the open-ended mouina with a hammock strung across it. The Kalinago appear in their tribal finery of beads, earplugs, decorated aprons and hair ornaments. From the left one woman arrives with her loaded pegal greeted by a man carrying a bow and several arrows. In the centre a woman lowers a clay bowl, chamacou, onto a wicker stand, mattoutou. A woman seated on a wooden stool displays the reed bark leg straps that were woven on at marriage so as to enlarge her calves and was considered to be a mark of female beauty. A baby suckles her while another eats from a small bowl. A man drinks from a calabash, mouloutoucou, and as in the pictures of the Black Caribs he carries a knife slipped into his loincloth. Identifiable plants are the heliconia or balizier, baliri, to the left and a native palm, in the centre. Apart from the specific botanical specimens, Brunias painted trees in the manner of temperate oaks and elms rather than tropical rainforest vegetation. Such a pristine gathering, free of European trade goods, may not have existed in the 1760s and Brunias may have pieced together elements of what was left of the culture at the time. However it still is a valuable ethnographic record of Vincentian Kalinago and it is an image that has been reworked by other artists in the generations that followed.
Chatoyer and the Black Caribs
In the first years of settlement Sir William Young was aware that he had to woo Carib friendship, at least until the British had the upper hand. During the first three years of settlement, 1765-1768, there appears to have been much interaction between Young and the Caribs and it is during this period that Brunias had his greatest access to them. Several paintings of Chatoyer are done during this interlude, the most famous being versions of Chatoyer and his five wives. Sir William records giving the chief numerous gifts and holding 'vins' or feasts for his entertainment. But there was growing apprehension among the Caribs as colonization progressed. The relationship changed as they saw the plantocracy's greed for more land transgress any earlier assurances they may have been given as to the security of their own farming and hunting territory. It is a subject well covered in the literature of the period elsewhere and it needs to be taken into account as a background to this section of this paper.
17. Chatoyer and his Wives.
As the situation in St Vincent deteriorated Governor Young suddenly left his post in Dominica in 1772 rushing to St Vincent to "assist with the Carib War" and to protect his estates there. The Dominican Assembly was none too pleased by his departure and refused to pay him, arguing that, "His salary was conditional on his actual residence and must be forfeited because of his absence." Regardless of this Young participated fully in the so-called "First Carib War" of 1772-1773. At first he attempted negotiation, but when conflict broke out, he adopted the hard line view, which included, among other possible solutions, the idea of transporting the Black Caribs away from St Vincent.
18. Pacification with Maroon Negroes. Oil Painting.
Like the "Negro Festival", the engraving entitled "Pacification of Maroon Negroes" has been the centre of some controversy. The original painting from which it is taken depicts, what is believed to be the climax of the First Carib War, when in February 1773 a treaty was made between the British and the main Black Carib chiefs, Chatoyer prominent among them. British soldiers are encamped on the right, while the eleven men due to take an oath of allegiance to King George III stand to the left listening as an interpreter, probably Chatoyer's chief advisor, Jean Baptiste, explains the terms dictated by the British. As demanded in Article 2 of the treaty to "lay down their arms", the guns, swords and bows of the Black Caribs lie on the ground between them. At the extreme right a British officer holds a map of St Vincent, which would have had the respective boundaries of Carib and plantation land delineated on it. Another officer reads from a paper, which contains the twenty-four articles of the treaty. There is some disagreement as to who is the senior officer seated with his arm extended in a classic gesture of peace. Some have it to be Major General Dalrymple leader of the expedition of 1772. Others are convinced that it is Sir William Young himself, painted as heroic peacemaker by his loyal artist. A comparison of Sir William, painted by Zoffany and Sir William as painted by Brunias would favour the view that it is Young. But by the time the painting was transferred into an engraving it could be any white official and in its printed form this scene took on a life of its own. It has been used to depict scenes of maroon confrontation in Jamaica and Dominica as well as at its point of genesis in St Vincent. In Bryan Edwards' history it is captioned "Pacification with Maroon Negroes" without any direct reference to the text, which mainly covers the Jamaican maroon campaigns. Printed at the time of the Haitian revolution and its aftermath it became also a symbol of British order and control in comparison to the disastrous French collapse in St Domingue. Brunias had once again provided visual reinforcement of the security and contentment under British rule at a time when the British Empire was expanding its vision to India and Africa beyond its early focus in the West Indies.
Patron and Artist
20. Sir William Young by Johan Zoffany and Agostino Brunias.
Sir William Young was back in England at the end of 1773 and his office of Receiver and Governor closed on 1 October 1774. It was concluded by his family that "the adventure in the ceded islands had proved so expensive and indeed ruinous" to him. Brunias stayed on in the islands for a while after Young's departure in 1773 and then returned to England in about 1775 and visited the continent. During this visit he exhibited and sold paintings, mainly to absentee planters resident in Britain. He transferred details of his paintings into engravings and returned for a time to his former occupation of carrying out commissions in the grand houses that Adam had constructed, this time using Caribbean rather than classical themes. He exhibited three of his West Indian paintings at the Royal Academy exhibitions of 1777 and 1779.6 At this time he was living in London's West End. He was at two addresses during this period, 20 Broad Street, Carnaby Market; and 7 Broad Street, Soho.
He kept in touch with his patron and eventually returned to the Caribbee Islands in 1784 where he produced a set of botanical drawings for the newly appointed curator of the St Vincent Botanic Gardens, Mr Alexander Anderson. This return coincided with the declaration of peace between the French and the British following five years of war during which time Dominica and St Vincent had been occupied by the French: Dominica from 1778 and St Vincent from 1779. Both were returned to British rule by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. All of this had happened during Brunias' absence in Britain. Sir William died in England on 8 April 1788 leaving estates in Tobago, Betsy's Hope in Antigua and Calliaqua and Pembroke in St Vincent. The title went to his son, also William, who inherited his plantations and died in Tobago in 1815. In his will, written and registered in St Vincent, Sir William the elder, bequeathed to "Mr Brunias, one mourning ring" and fifty pounds Sterling. After his job in St Vincent, Brunias was again in Dominica where he spent the rest of his life continuing to paint surrounded by the family, which he appears to have begun just before his departure in 1775. Brunias died in Roseau on 2nd April 1796 at the age of 66 and was buried in the old Roman Catholic cemetery that surrounded the church dedicated to Notre Dame du Bonne Port, Our Lady of Fair Haven.7
21. Painted buttons from the coat of Toussaint L'Overture.
His work continued to be admired and copied long after his death. A set of painted buttons on a coat said to have belonged to Toussaint L'Ouverture, the liberator of Haiti, are replicas of Brunias prints miniaturized on each button, probably in France. French engravers in the 19th century copied his work freely and this has caused some confusion in verifying authenticity. In 1854 a Paris journal: "Manuel de l'amateur d'estampes" mentions an exhibition of certain of his prints. In the 1980s there was a renewed interest among a select group of international collectors, which resulted in a marked rise in the prices paid for his works.
Negre et negresse de la Martinique dansant la Chica. Par de J. Lachaussee d'apres S.G. Saint-Sauveur (d'apres Agostino Brunias) 1805.
West India Washer Women in Oils, Engraving and Reproduction.
On the surface it may seem out of place that one should find a romantic among the crude gaggle of planters and merchants scrambling for the material riches of the 18th century West Indies. His work has classical qualities: figures, regardless of what they may be doing, fighting or washing, are poised with seemingly elegant ease in settings characteristic of the period. It is this Rousseauesque neo-classicism in Brunias' work that makes his prints such popular and enduring works of art. But it is a deceptively partial view of the plantation society which Brunias recorded, for his work almost purposefully ignores the seedier, brutal side of the Caribbean experience in the latter half of the 18th century that would have been all around him. There are no scenes of slavery in action, no depiction of gangs cutting sugar cane or ladlers and tenders of the furnaces processing sugar in the mills. The iron neck braces and gagging metal masks padlocked upon the head as punishment that are described on the streets of Roseau and Kingstown by others at the end of the 18th century are nowhere to be seen in Brunias' work. He was indeed no conscience-stricken Goya, but rather an artist with his eye on a particular market for his craft, producing a decorative form of art that would not upset his clients.
The style of Agostino Brunias touched the intellectual spirit of the age, where a branch of Enlightenment thought conceived of the Noble Savage set in an idyllic tropical paradise. It was at the same time and in a similar spirit that William Hodges, one of the artists who traveled with Captain Cook, was painting his scenes of the Pacific where noble native chiefs, dancers, and warriors astride decorated canoes in coral lagoons, were placed against the spectacular backdrops of the sunset tinted mountains of Tahiti and Raratonga. They were recording a culture that the very expeditions upon which these artists had embarked would ultimately destroy. Brunias' paintings of St Vincent likewise caught images of a pre-conquest culture destined for destruction.
In Britain his work complimented the transformation that was taking place in the gardens of the same stately homes where his paintings and engravings were displayed. Formal gardens were being transformed into pastoral landscapes dotted with artificial lakes and classical follies designed to evoke a rural idyll. This was far removed from the grime and squalor of the coal mines and factories of the Industrial Revolution that were emerging along the borders of those same estates, the stately homes of which Brunias was decorating. The lavish adornment and pastoral landscaping on one hand and the "dark satanic mills" of industry on the other were both, in several cases at least, a reinvestment of profits from the slave-based plantations of the West Indies. In the art of Agostino Brunias, as in the enterprise of his time, the relationship between the late 18th century plantations in the West Indies was linked to the powerful forces of British wealth and to the enjoyment of the fruits of that wealth. One of those pleasures was to enjoy the work of a painter who skillfully, some would say immorally and without conscience, used the demands of the market and the prejudices of society to his own advantage.
Perhaps such esoteric academic analysis may be forcing us to be too critical. In the popular culture of the post-independent islands where he once worked, Brunias' depiction of 18th century plantation life has become a source of inspiration for Crop Over Kadooment bands, restaurant signage, Plantation Inn dancers and museum souvenirs in Barbados; costumes from his prints are copied by nationalist village cultural groups in Dominica. In St Vincent the national hero is depicted on everything from walls to telephone cards in the image that Brunias gave us, while tourism and other literature is illustrated with his work. By creating a visual and romantic icon of Chatoyer as the 'noble savage', the idyllic aboriginals and the 'merry slaves' of St Vincent, perhaps Agostino Brunias, the Grand Tour artist of Rome, has struck a cord of escapism from history and from truth, that, dare we admit it, still lingers to this day.
1 Prominent among these stately homes are Syon, Osterly, Stowe, Saltram, Audley End, Kedleston and Harewood. Brunias had a hand in the decoration of those constructed or renovated between 1758 and 1764 and again when he was back working in England from about 1775 to 1784.
2 Adams was known to scratch out Brunias' signature and to leave the space blank or even, it was alleged, replace it with his own so as to get credit for the work. Six years before, another of Adam's assistants, a Belgian from Liege, Laurent-Benoit Dewez, escaped across the channel to Europe fearing that Adam was planning to make a slave of him.
3 Today a copy of "A Barbadoes Mulatto Girl" is sold as a souvenir by the Barbados Museum. The Cunard Gallery at the Museum is lined with a fine array of visual records of people, places and events; probably the best collection of West Indian prints in the region. Many of Brunias' engravings can be seen there.
5 These bear dedications to such officials as Sir John Frederick; General Dalrymple who clashed with the Black Caribs in 1772-1773 and Charles O'Hara, Crown Surveyor in Dominica during the 1770s and later a Brigadier General who was a partner in the group that owned Rosalie Estate on Dominica's east coast.
6 The programme of an exhibition of paintings at the Royal Academy in London in 1777 mentions one painting by Brunias: 'A Negroes Sunday Market in the Island of Dominica'. In 1779 they also hung 'A View of the town of Roseau in the Island of Dominica' and 'A View of the river of Roseau in the Island of Dominica.'
7 In the baptismal records of the Roseau Cathedral an entry was found noting the baptism of "Edward and Augustin two illegitimate children born on the 1st October 1774 of Louis Bruneas and a free mulatto woman". A watercolour done by Brunias during that time depicts a mulatto woman wearing a fashionable pink 'grand robe' with a red bordered head tie, under which he wrote, "Ma Coummier", which means in Dominican French Creole, "The godmother of my child". This woman appears again in an oil painting of mulattoes promenading on the banks of the Roseau River. In the tax returns of 1827, giving lists of produce and slaves on Dominica, we find in the parish of St Paul, a small estate owned by Elizabeth Brunias, which was worked by 11 slaves who produced 1,225 lbs of coffee. An estate house and surrounding yard typical of a property of this size appears in his painting of "A Creole scene in Dominica". Standing in the main door of the house is a lady who appears to be the mulatress mistress of the place. Is there any connection? Is Louis Bruneas anything to do with Agostino Brunias? The French always spelt his surname with an 'e'. Are they one and the same person? Is the Elizabeth Brunias of 1827 a daughter of the painter, or did he in the end marry "the free mulatto woman" who was the mother of his children? And if so, are the present-day Bruney families, who trace their origins to land around the hillside village of Cochrane in the parish of St Paul in Dominica, the descendants of this 18th century artist, traveler and chronicler in paint of our island's history? These are just some of the loose ends still to be explored in piecing together a fuller account of this colourful life.
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