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Barry Watson: Tribute to an icon

Published:Thursday | January 28, 2016 | 12:00 AMKeisha Hill
Barrington Watson's 'Washerwomen' (1966),
Barrington Watson's 'Mother and Child' (1958-59).
Portraits of Sir Alexander Bustamante (left) and Norman Washington Manley, which were painted by Jamaican artist Barrington Watson.

Barrington Watson's contribution to Jamaica's cultural heritage goes well beyond the hundreds of paintings and sculptures that he has created in a near lifetime of creative endeavour. Apart from insisting on being recognised as an artist first and as a Jamaican artist second, most of his paintings were inspired by Jamaica and its people and represent some of the most iconic images in Jamaican art history.

Watson explored a wide range of themes and genres in his work, including historical paintings, portraits and self-portraits, landscape, nudes, erotica, and still life ranging from the intimate to the epic and all interpreted with his unique style.

Born in Lucea, Hanover, in 1931, Watson was educated at the Royal College of Art, London (1958-1960) and continued his study of the works of European masters at the Rijksacademie, Amsterdam, the Academia de las Bellas Artes in Madrid and other major European art schools.

He returned to Jamaica in 1962 to become the first director of studies at the Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts (now part of the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts) and spearheaded a new curriculum, which allowed graduating artists to filter into the areas of teaching, advertising, and television, as well as the conventional fine and applied arts.

Watson's historical paintings portray those moments in Jamaica's history that he perceived to be of particular importance in the move towards and beyond Independence. He regarded Independence as an event of the highest historical significance that could only be honoured by the highest of genres in the tradition of the British Academy: history painting.

In essence, Watson was undisturbed by contemporary trends in the international and Jamaican art world but followed the stylistic conventions of those European masters that he admired. His contemporary history paintings symbolically captured the spirit of Independence.

Watson's history paintings include The English Landing (date unknown), The Morant Bay Rebellion (1964), The Hanging of George William Gordon (1968), as well as the contemporary historical paintings Out of Many One People (1962 and c1970), and Michael and Fidel (1977).

In addition, he painted portraits of important political leaders and national heroes Cudjoe (date unknown), Rt Excellent Sam Sharpe (1976), Rt Excellent Norman Manley (1969), and Sir Alexander Bustamante (1981).

Some of Watson's most iconic images in Jamaican art history include Mother and Child (1958-59) and Conversation (1981) seen in the National Gallery of Jamaica collection.

Although he is best known as a painter, Barrington was also an accomplished draughtsman and printmaker.

Watson has also executed several major commissions, including the mural The Garden Party (1975) and the installation Trust (1975, with Cecil Baugh) at the Bank of Jamaica; the mural Our Heritage (1974) at Olympia Art Centre; and various official portraits, including past prime ministers of Jamaica, Martin Luther King (1970) at Spelman College in Atlanta, and former Commonwealth Secretary and University of the West Indies Chancellor Sir Shridath Ramphal, at the University of the West Indies - Mona (1992) and at Marlborough House in London (1995).

As a founding member of the Contemporary Jamaican Artists Association in 1964, along with fellow painters Karl Parboosingh and Eugene Hyde, Watson quickly became one of the leading artists of the post-Independence period in Jamaica. His work work represents a turning point in the development of Jamaica's cultural and artistic aesthetic and professionalised the local artistic practice.

Watson was steadfast in his efforts to paint figuratively and to accurately depict what he called the Caribbean's temperate influences.

Women were often the subject of his work. His fondness for draping them in sheer garments demonstrates his accomplishment in rendering the female form while at the same time charging them with erotic overtones.

Watson also received many awards and accolades during his lifetime. These include the Order of Distinction, Commander Class in 1984; the Order of Jamaica in 2006; and the Institute of Jamaica's Gold Musgrave Medal in 2000.

The National Gallery of Jamaica also honoured Barrington with a major retrospective in 2012, which was curated by then Chief Curator Dr David Boxer and guest curator Claudia Hucke and presented as part of the National Gallery's Jamaica 50 programme. The exhibition included paintings and works on paper from the late 1950s to the present and explored the major themes in his work.

Source: The National

Gallery of Jamaica