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View the document18th Century life in the West Indies: the life and works of Agostino Brunias

18th Century life in the West Indies: the life and works of Agostino Brunias

by Alissandra CUMMINS

One might wonder why an 18th Century Italian painter has become so important in a place far distant from his birthplace. Although generally regarded as a minor English artist in various contemporary historical texts, Agostino Brunias (also known as Brunyas or Brunais) has in recent years gained increasing significance, not only for the art historian, in the Caribbean.

Caribbean Art History is a relatively young field of study and the work of this Italian painter forms a major part of the region’s artistic resources. The colonial life of the West Indies can only be recaptured through the analysis of contemporary descriptions, both visual and written, which provide intriguing glimpses of that particular aspect of world history. Brunias’ work has special significance for researchers in this field. The relative rarity of images of the Indian, black and mulatto populations in the islands was no doubt indicative of the attitudes of the 18th century creole plantocracy. In general they preferred not to be reminded of an aspect of their daily lives which, by the latter half of the century, was becoming more of a social burden than an economic convenience.

Why would a young artist brought to the West Indies under a governor’s patronage give so much attention to such an unfashionable topic? The answer lies, at least partially, in the nature of both the man and his patron, Governor Sir William Young. When Brunias first arrived in the Caribbean in 1770 the tropical landscapes, the glowing colours and warmth of the winds, and the exotic lifestyle made a tremendous impact on the previously correct academician. Almost immediately his painting reflected this enchantment, and for 25 years, until his death, Brunias remained under the spell of the West Indies.

Born in Rome in 1730, little is known of the artist’s early life until he entered the Academy of Design of Saint Luke in Rome as a young art student around 1748. There he received a rigorous academic training which included drawing and copying antique Roman sculpture and studying the painting techniques of the master painters, destined to prepare him for a life as the versatile working artist he was expected to become. He received some small distinction in 1754 when, as part of his graduation, Brunias won third prize for his set piece.

The painting ‘Tobias and the Angel’ took almost three months to complete and shows little of the personal style Brunias was to develop in later years. Instead, the work is replete with the traditions of centuries. Brunias cannot be totally to blame for the stilted formality of the scene of Tobias at the moment of revelation. The self-consciousness of the artist’s technique reveals Brunias’ anxiety to succeed, and indeed his training stood him in good stead once he left the Academy. By 1756 he had found employment as a draughtsman with the famous English architect/designer, Robert Adam.

Apprenticeship to Adam

Under Adam’s supervision, Brunias exercised his training to the full, completing the exhausting task of meticulously recording the dimensions and decoration of the Baths of Diocletian, and other famous sites and ruins. For the next two years, Adam kept Brunias and his colleagues busy on a relentless schedule drafting drawings and plans of many other antique sites located all over Italy. This was Adam’s preparation for developing the knowledge necessary to satisfy his clients’ taste for the neo-classical in interior design. However, there was little opportunity for Brunias to develop a recognisable personal style; Adam has become the key to his success.

In 1758 Adam returned home to London taking Brunias with him. Over the next few years Brunias continued to work for Adam, producing working drawings to the designer’s specifications and, later, large decorative paintings in the neo-classical style intended to complement Adam’s interiors designed for the stately homes of England’s aristocracy. Brunias also started to exhibit his work regularly with The Free Society of Artists, hoping, no doubt, to develop a larger clientele and greater popularity. His paintings from this period all bear titles such as ‘A Large landscape, with ruins and figures.’

Despite his attempt at independence the familiarity and popularity of the antique provided a safe approach to the public market. Brunias was caught in the trap of his own making. Although he eventually parted company with Robert Adam, in 1765 he had found employment with another London architect, William Chambers, and continued to support himself producing commissioned pieces for clients’ residences.

By the age of 40, Brunias has achieved a comfortable reputation for himself as a landscape and figure painter as well as an engraver, but he had never achieved the prominence to which he aspired. The artist had reached a cross-roads in his career when he was approached by Sir William Young to travel under his patronage to the West Indies. Sir William was appointed Governor of the Leeward Islands in 1770 and took up residence in the island of Dominica for the period of his office.

The Leewards - a revelation

Brunias leapt at this opportunity to travel to this little-known territory. Brunias no doubt saw himself as fulfilling the romantic dream of any young artist at the time. Travel and adventure in exotic places was the ambition of many with the hope of achieving success and prosperity. Indeed the artist found himself surrounded by every luxury, for contemporary records report that “Sir William lived in the style of a Prince. . . “.

Almost immediately the artist was inspired and sent two drawings “ after nature” to be exhibited in London. Over the next three years Brunias worked feverishly to record his impressions of an environment, both natural and cultural, that was as alien to the mores of European society in its own way as the Far East was to the artists who ‘discovered’ that region in the 19th century.

Every aspect of West Indian society was captured on Brunias’ canvas. He recorded the simple chattel huts and unfettered lives of the island’s caribindian population as meticulously as he did the indolent lifestyle of the creole plantocracy. Of primary importance for Caribbean historians however, was Brunias’ detailed sketches and paintings of the slave and free coloured populations. Bound inextricably to the demands of the plantation, the negro could not escape the pervasive influence of European society. In many of his paintings, the dress and stance of this subject apes the mode of English society of the period. This impression is enhanced by the classical qualities with which the artist imbues his figures regardless of whether they are fighting, washing clothes or standing at their ease.

It is clear that Brunias was as much influenced by the theories of ‘the noble savage’ surfacing around this time, as he was intrigued by the complexity of a culture which incorporated both African and European elements at every level. In his “ Free Natives of Dominica”, Brunias records in magnificent detail the extravagant clothing, headdress and jewellery of the island’s mulattoes. At the same time both men and women adopted the tall intricately-folded headties which were primarily African in origin.

In his larger pieces such as “ A Cudgelling Match. .. “ and “ A Negroes’ Dance in the Island of Dominica” Brunias provides a wealth of detail about the habits and customs of a rigidly delineated society. The paintings are invaluable markers to the ways in which negro men and women conducted themselves under the harsh reality of colonial society. Brunias was also given the opportunity to travel to many of the other islands as Governor Young toured his estates within the territory. His canvases of Barbados, St. Vincent and St. Kitts reveal aspects of the social and economic life of each island which, despite their rather romanticised flavour, help in developing a clearer perspective of 1 8th century life in each island.

Brunias returned to England with Sir William in 1773 and immediately set to work creating large-scale paintings based on his smaller sketches. The following year he exhibited two of his pieces at the Royal Academy of London where they were favourably received. Over the next few years he continued to exhibit regularly, finally achieving the success he so avidly sought. His exotic scenes captured the public’s imagination to such an extent that the series of prints which he later produced sold successfully to the European market.

Despite this success, however, Brunias could not forget his island home and returned there after visiting the continent once more. Once again Brunias’ life faded into comfortable oblivion, despite the continued success of his paintings and prints. Perhaps once he had achieved his success he was happy to retreat into solitude, for little or nothing is known of his final years in Dominica until his death in 1796. Nevertheless this this century artist, traveller and chronicler has left an invaluable legacy to the region, a legacy which is now the subject of ongoing research, analysis and interpretation.

A. C.