Letter from Laura
Valerie Bloomfield's stunning portrait of John Maxwell caught my attention at the National Gallery decades ago. To this day, I have always liked John Maxwell, no matter how controversial his opinions might have been, first as a political commentator and later as an environmental advocate. Valerie just captured someone of great character with her artist's eye.
Ignacy Eker, aka Andrew Hope, writing in 1975, described sitting for her: "She caught me to the life: it was a penetrating and realistic study, yet also a sympathetic and well-balanced one ... . The reason for her success is that she approaches her task very conscientiously and without preconceived ideas, each sitter is an individual and there are no ready-made formula to turn the job into a boringly automatic procedure."
And she has done it repeatedly, painting portraits of Prime Minister Michael Manley, Sir Florizel Glasspole, University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona Vice-chancellors A. Z. Preston, Sir Alister McIntyre, the Honorable Rex Nettleford and Professor E. Nigel Harris, just to give you an idea of the prominent West Indians who have come under her brush. Her repertoire also includes nine portraits for Mutual Life of their chairmen, capturing Jamaican history from the 19th century onwards.
Though she migrated to Florida eventually, it was a natural that she would be asked to capture His Excellency Sir Kenneth Hall when a portrait was in order after his retirement as governor general.
Of his experience, Sir Kenneth notes: "On being told that I needed to sit for a portrait, I was at first reluctant. However, within a very short time after meeting with Valerie Bloomfield-Ambrose, I was put at ease. It became evident that she is an artist of extraordinary competence. She was able to produce the portrait within a short time frame by being flexible and working for unusually long hours. It was a rather pleasant and informative experience. I am very satisfied with the finished portrait."
Today, that portrait hangs in the ballroom of King's House. But I was able to photograph it while the artist was just putting her finishing touches on it.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1930s and classically trained at the Glasgow School of Art, she met her first husband Andrew Bloomfield, a Jamaican studying civil engineering, in Scotland. They married in Jamaica in December 1959, and remained living here.
Although the marriage ended in 1975, Valerie had established herself teaching art at Wolmer's Girls' School, then Jamaica College, and later part-time at The Priory School, while she relished life in the theatre, acting opposite Lloyd Reckord in a 1962 Independence production.
Only in the '60s did she focus on becoming a serious artist, having a studio shared with Ruth Cohn and Moira Small, two fellow artists with whom she had her first exhibition in 1964. The second was with Graham Davis in 1971, then, in 1975, she parti-cipated in the International Women's Year Art Exhibition opened by Indira Gandhi.
Valerie taught at the Jamaica School of Art from 1970-1979 and was so highly thought of as an educator that she was invited to the prestigious Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC, as a guest lecturer. Married to John Ambrose in 1977, she was awarded the top fellowship for entry into the master's programme at the American University in Washington DC in 1980, where she also taught drawing and painting from 1981-1983.
A colleague there noted: "Her knowledge and experience in painting, sculpture, drawing and anatomy is nothing short of brilliant. She is able to teach any of these at any level one might wish."
So it was not surprising that she was offered a job in 1983 at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, one of the foremost art schools in the United States. Her move to southern Florida, where she continued as a superb educator in both painting and sculpture, brought her closer to Jamaica and led to a series of portrait and sculpture commissions here, notably the 2002 sculpture of Sir Philip Sherlock, first vice-chancellor of the UWI, which now sits larger than life on the UWI Mona campus.
In August 2012, in time for Jamaica's 50th Independence celebrations, her portrait of Sir Kenneth Hall took pride of place in the ballroom at King's House. But for this dedicated woman of talent, who has faced daunting medical problems of which she rarely speaks, her long association with art in both America and Jamaica culminated in two gratifying achievements.
November 2012 saw Valerie Bloomfield-Ambrose, sculptor, art educator and painter, being conferred with an honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) degree by UWI, while later that same month, the Arts Council of Martin County opened a gala retrospective of her work in the gallery of the Court House Cultural Center in Stuart, Florida, an exhibition which ended in January 2013.