Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

John Blagrove of Cardiff Hall, St Ann's Jamaica, 1753-1824

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

John Blagrove of Cardiff Hall, St Ann's Jamaica, 1753-1824

Article excerpt

Introduction

John Blagrove was born at Cardiff Hall in the Parish of St Ann, Jamaica, in 1753. Like other known leading Anglo-Creole West Indians who inherited and made wealth through colonial plantation slavery in the eighteenth century, very little is known about the interstices of his life. The standard pieces of information concerning the birth and baptism of his children, lists of named slaves on his properties, plantation deeds and plans, his Will and general facts, drawn from the Dictionary of National Biography and archival sources in Jamaica and Britain, offer little that would allow a reader to shape a meaningful contour of his life.

The portrait of Blagrove in the Historical Collection of the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston is signed by Pompeo Batoni at Rome and dated 1774. It was executed while Blagrove was on a Grand Tour of Europe, shortly after leaving Oxford University. The painting was accepted as an "autograph portrait" by the late Anthony Clark, art historian and specialist in Batoni's oeuvre or lifetime body of work, as it is signed and dated lower left by Batoni. (P. Batoni: Rome PINXIT. AN 1774).1 Anthony Clark, the American scholar and museum director, came to be considered the dean of Roman Sette'cento studies; he worked with other art historian scholars, such as Ellis Waterhouse and Brinsley Ford, to produce a catalogue raisonné of the painter's lifework. Since its publication in 1985, one leading scholar to further Batoni studies has been Edgar Peter Bowron (2007).2 The portrait of Blagrove is the only known portrait of an Anglo-Creole Jamaican planter and, perhaps, of a West Indian plantation owner painted by a leading Italian eighteenthcentury master known to exist.

During the eighteenth century's British West Indian colonial period, only a few Anglo-West Indian absentee planters involved themselves with visual culture as patrons, collectors or both.3 They brought artists from England or the Continent with them to their respective islands to carry out projects to attest to their "taste and gentlemanly status". Some like Blagrove, as discussed further, actually engaged in ideas for cultural projects which were applied to Cardiff Hall upon his return from Europe. Artists who came to the West Indies were itinerant and their lives were very different from the established and fashionable portrait painters, namely Sir Joshua Reynolds and Pompeo Batoni, practising in London and Rome, respectively. Because this area has been neglected and has yet to be researched fully, whether these planters went on a Grand Tour or sat for Batoni in Rome has yet to be established.

What is known about the planters who brought artists back to the islands for a time is the following: William Beckford of Jamaica and England (1744-1799) went on the Grand Tour but there is no evidence that he sat for Batoni in Rome for a portrait of himself.4 He brought two artists to Jamaica, George Robertson (1748-1788), a landscape painter, and Phillip Wickstead, (fl.1763-1786), a portraitist. Robertson recorded the Jamaican landscape including Views of Beckford's estates and Wickstead executed portraits of the local gentry and merchant classes.5 Sir Ralph Payne, Baron Lavington of St Kitts and Antigua (1738-1807) brought the English watercolourist Thomas Hearne (1744-1817) to Antigua. Payne neither went on the Grand Tour nor had his portrait painted by Batoni. Hearne produced a few remarkable topographical sketches and drawings that were developed into paintings and prints once he returned to England.6 Sir William Young 1st Bt, of Dominica, St Vincent, Trinidad and Tobago (1725-1788) patronized Agostino Bruñías (ca. 1730-1796) who became Young's official painter. Bruñías has left us with a number of genre paintings of Young's estates and scenes of towns and markets (there are many prints as well as copies after his originals) in the Leeward Islands. On the one hand, these pictures may be seen as visual apologies for slavery, as they gloss over the sordid and cruel nature of colonial sugar production at the time. …

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