Art Beat: Barrington Watson

Jamaican artist Barrington Watson has parlayed a European education into the modern classical Caribbean style for which he’s celebrated. Donna Yawching talks to this graceful master of technique and Caribbean spirit

Barrington Watson. Photograph by Anton ModesteFarm House 2Mento Dance. Photograph by Anton ModesteNude WatercolourSleeping Beauty 2Tea Tim. Photograph by Anton ModesteWatercolourWatercolour 1Watson shares a joke with lifelong friend Pat Rosseau. Photograph by Anton ModesteWatson with Vicki Assevero at the opening of his show at Kiskadee. A cultural Laboratory in Port of Spain. Photograph by Anton Modeste

Normally, in a profile of this sort, a writer would refer to the subject by his last name. “Mr Watson” to his face; “Watson” on the printed page. But Jamaican artist Barrington Watson torpedoes this tradition. He is Barrington. Period. “I learned that in Spain,” he explains. “The Spanish told me: Watson is your family. Barrington is you.” Barrington Watson has spent the last 71 years figuring out exactly who that is.

Mind you, there’s no lack of people eager to define him. The words “master painter” crop up repeatedly in conversations about Barrington. So do “brilliant”, “professional”, “phenomenal” and “influential”. He has been described as “probably the most rigorously trained Jamaican artist ever”; his works have been displayed all over the world, and reside in well over a thousand private collections. In mercenary terms, his price list alone signals that he has arrived: at a recent exhibition in Trinidad, the paintings ranged from US$1,200 (a small watercolour) to US$30,000 (for the landmark Tea Time, a wall-size oil painting of the West Indies cricket team walking off the field).

Subconsciously, then, one expects a monumental figure, a kind of patriarch. Not the slim, reserved, mild-looking gentleman seated self-effacingly in a corner of Port of Spain’s Kiskadee: A Cultural Laboratory, whom I pass by twice without recognising. It’s a few hours before the opening night of Barrington’s exhibition, and gallery owner Vicki Assevero is in a tizzy. She distractedly directs me to his paintings, but omits to present the artist himself — our interview is scheduled for later, and elsewhere. But somehow, things come together, and we find ourselves on Kiskadee’s porch, launching into an impromptu chat that lasts more than two hours.

I’ve seen some of Barrington’s paintings. I’ve read his book, Shades of Grey. I’ve done enough research to know that the man is big. So who are you, I ask bluntly; who is Barrington Watson, really and truly? The answer is deceptively simple. “Really and truly,” Barrington tells me, “I’m a Caribbean man. That’s all.”

If the question wasn’t loaded, the answer certainly is. Because one of the most striking things about Barrington’s art is how very “classical” it looks. A figurative painter of monumental talent, his work owes an undeniable debt to the greatest European masters — and Barrington is not shy in acknowledging this. He has stated his ambitions very clearly: “I utilise,” he has written, “the light of Turner; the line of Ingres; the range of Rembrandt; the techniques of Velasquez; the emotion of Goya; and my birthright of Benin.” Has he forgotten anyone? Well, one can certainly find echoes of Rubens, Renoir, Monet, even Braque; when it comes to classical technique, this man has few contemporary equals. Nor is he disturbed by suggestions that such an array of skills might be seen as stifling his own personal style. “Style is a matter of technique,” he explains. “You can employ any style you want, if you have the technique. Different subjects demand being treated differently.”

Barrington’s classical references have been honestly come by. As a young man, he spent 10 years in the capitals of Europe, moving from one scholarship award to the next, mastering his craft. “I went there to learn,” he muses; “to find out what I had. Not to show them how good I was. Most of my colleagues would go there to show how good they were: ‘We are from the tropics, we understand colour.’ I went there to learn greys: to learn what they had. Between black and white, everything is grey. One of the things I was never afraid of, and most artists are, is being influenced by what they think is the wrong thing. One must be influenced. And then you select.”

You get the impression, talking to Barrington, that he has always had this self-assurance. And by all accounts, that’s not far from the truth: he never seems to have had any doubts as to his destiny. “I started drawing almost from birth,” he says, only half-jokingly; “ but at about age 14, I made a conscious decision to be an artist.” His lifelong friend, Pat Rousseau, confirms: “He’s always been very focused, very dedicated to the things he wants to do.”

It probably didn’t hurt Barrington’s youthful resolve that his father, a pharmacist and “a frustrated surgeon”, was dead set against this dream of being an artist; he had long ago decided that his son would be a lawyer. At 14, Barrington found himself in “a big row” with his dad; harsh words were uttered about his aspirations, wounding him to the quick. Unable to “talk back”, he made a silent vow: “When I was my own man, I’d go to art school and become an artist.”

Of course, that couldn’t happen for a few years yet. At Kingston College, where Barrington attended secondary school, art was not a part of the curriculum. At the end of his first term, he recalls, he was at the bottom of the class because he kept drawing in his copybooks instead of paying attention to the teachers. In the second term, however, after a serious talk from the headmaster, he shot to the top of the class. “What I learned was that you do the things you have to do, do them well and get them out of the way. Then you can do the things you want.”

One of the things he wanted to do was sports; by 18, Barrington was a college football star, representing Jamaica abroad and scoring a hat-trick in his first international game. He’s still something of an athlete, playing tennis three or four times a week, and taking long walks every morning to keep in shape. His love of sport is reflected in his art: the West Indian cricket team has been the subject of numerous sketches and paintings, and one of his earliest themes was The Athlete’s Nightmare (1966).

During these adolescent years, art took a backseat. Barrington signed up for after-school art lessons at the Junior Centre, but this interfered with his sports practice, so he bided his time. After graduation he worked in the Post Office, quietly saving money to pay for his boat passage to England. His father knew nothing about this until it was a fait accompli; infuriated, he tried to stop the young man, but it was 1952 and Barrington was 21. “I decided it was time to go and so I took off,” he shrugs. It wasn’t until many years later, when the artist (by then widely respected) was commissioned to paint a portrait of national hero Norman Manley, that Watson Sr. became reconciled to his son’s life choices. His public apology on that occasion left Barrington almost in tears: “I didn’t do it visibly; I cried inwardly.”

In Britain, young Barrington enrolled in the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, and after a year was accepted by the Royal College of Art. This, in itself, was exceptional: an applicant to the prestigious College would normally need to have completed four years of training; but in this case, they clearly recognised the young man’s potential. Barrington stood out in another way as well: he was the first black student to attend the College’s Painting School.

In the tradition of art students from time immemorial, money was a problem. Barrington worked to support himself, but still needed sponsorship, and the Jamaican government was not forthcoming. He was forced to apply to his father for aid; but before it could arrive, the British Council came through with a handsome scholarship. After that, it was relatively smooth sailing. “You get one scholarship, and other people start looking at you,” he says, including, it should be added, the Jamaican government.

Bursaries, scholarships and travel grants rolled in, enabling the intense young artist to roam the Continent and study at the academies of Paris, Amsterdam, Rome and Madrid. “Europe taught me about a life that I would never have had the opportunity to understand or experience otherwise,” he muses. “It set me on the journey to research art and culture not only in Europe, but in many other countries. I’m always searching, I’m always learning, because it’s endless. Any day you find you have arrived, that’s the day you’re finished.”

Barrington’s European travels left him with more than just art. They seeded memories, ideas and insights that would find an unexpected outlet many years later when he would take to writing short stories, which he then illustrated with oil paintings reminiscent of Renoir and Goya, Manet and Monet (the collection was published as Shades of Grey by Ian Randle Publishers in 1998). In these slightly surrealistic tales, fact merges with fantasy, discovery with exposition: they paint the picture of a young man savouring la vie bohème while wrestling with the complicated concepts of his craft. At times, his writing plunges into almost obsessive detail (“I reached out and picked up a larger brush and transferred the number 6 to my left hand. The new one must have been a number 10 or 12 flat with long fibres”); at other times, it wallows in sensuality: “Below her breasts was a suggestion of floating ribs which gave way to the soft mound of her belly, rippling beautifully . . . ” It’s not immortal prose, but it offers fascinating insights into the making of an artist.

His writings also highlight the other thing that Barrington has become famous for: his fascination — some would say obsession — with the female form. Apart from his athletes, and another huge work that portrays a number of black world leaders (The Pan-Africanists, 1999), men are in short supply on Barrington’s canvases. But woman, in all her glory, is ubiquitous: standing, sitting, reclining, dancing, clothed or (more often) not. There is clear, undisguised adoration in the way Barrington approaches his female subjects: they are all full, rounded, ripe for the picking. Skin tones are rich with life and light; every breast is perfect, every limb luscious. Here is a man who has been seduced all his life by the feminine mystique; each painting is a form of wish-fulfilment.

It is also a form of artistic discipline. For Barrington, the female figure is the supreme challenge, far more difficult to capture than the male. “It’s the subtlety,” he explains. “Men have muscles and lines, they are angular; but the softness of women, the curvilinear movements, are difficult. Not just in the figure, but in their heads, as well. I’m trying to get behind the façade, the mystery. Men are no mystery to me; I’m a man, I know how men think.”

Other artists agree that Barrington has captured the mystery to perfection, particularly the mystery of the black woman, whose rich and complex skin tones he was one of the first painters to master. (Not even Gauguin with his Polynesians, Barrington points out, has achieved this; and the flesh-meister par excellence, Rubens, concentrated on milk-white skin.) Trinidadian artist Greer Jones-Woodham, wandering through his exhibition, says admiringly: “There’s a sense of real flesh, it’s hot, and you can feel the weight of the human body, the weight of the legs. He is brilliant, the way he handles the black form; how he gets light out of it.” And Leroy Clarke, doyen of the Trinidad art scene, says, “I am particularly moved by his drawing technique; he’s very alert to form. He really knows the human body; he brings into focus the form and the weight of his subject.”

Clarke takes issue with anyone who might accuse Barrington’s style of being too European, too classical. “Those would be people who want him to take shortcuts,” he says dismissively. “It’s not a European way of art, it’s mastering the media. His own sensibility comes out in his work, his attitude. I think the works are phenomenal.”

At the age of 71, Barrington stands like a landmark on the Jamaican artscape. Contemporary artists, he says, see him “as one of the forerunners, one of the people who opened doors.” From the moment he returned from Europe in 1961, to a homeland quivering on the brink of Independence, he has worked tirelessly to consolidate art on an institutional level, hacking out a path for future generations of artists.

In 1962, he accepted the post of Director of Jamaica’s newly chartered School of Art, later renamed the Edna Manley College of the Visual Arts. In 1964, with fellow-artists Eugene Hyde and Karl Parboosingh, he co-founded the Contemporary Jamaican Artists Association, launching what has been referred to as “a revolution of professionalism” in Jamaican art. The association, says Pat Rousseau, “helped to popularise art greatly. When Barry started out, artists were regarded as an unkempt crowd, but now they are accepted members of the community, and there’s a great interest in art acquisition.” Barrington made it possible, by example and by his determination to bring art into the mainstream, for Jamaican painters to conceive of making a living by their art.

The Association faded away in the early 70s, and Barrington opened his own gallery, Gallery Barrington, in 1974. This was expanded into the Contemporary Arts Centre in 1984, where Barrington offered exposure and training to other young artists. Still not satisfied, he founded the Jamaican Art Foundation in 1987. His aim, he says, is to have people come to the Caribbean to see Caribbean art, “in the same way that they go to the Prado to see Goya.” The region, he insists, is “unique in the entire planet, because of the different multicultural influences. We are equidistant from North, South, East and West: we can radiate.”

When asked why he returned to Jamaica at all, why he didn’t just stay in Europe, Barrington is surprisingly frank. “I wanted my environment; I wanted to look out from the Caribbean, rather than looking back to the Caribbean. When you’re in a country that’s steeped in tradition, you’re never going to be better than second; you’re never going to be Number One.”

Today, there’s little doubt that Barrington is Number One in Jamaica. He has won a string of prestigious national awards, and is a board member of the Jamaican National Gallery. Awarded a Fulbright professorship at Spelman College in Atlanta, he has had a day dedicated to him in that city; and one of his African paintings (he visited the continent in the mid-70s) hangs in Washington DC’s Museum of African Art — the only work by a non-African national to be so honoured.

No longer teaching, Barrington lives a semi-reclusive life at Orange Park, an old plantation property high in the hills of St Thomas at the end of a road so bad, says Pat Rousseau, that until it was paved in 1990 only a few very good friends would risk their vehicles on it. (“It used to be a river-bed,” Barrington admits.) The artist’s retreat is 20 miles outside of Kingston, allowing him the seclusion he needs to focus on his work. He bought and restored the 400-year-old property 34 years ago, after the breakdown of his first marriage. The house is a mile from its closest neighbour, and until last year, when he acquired a cellular phone, Barrington was literally incommunicado. “He liked the isolation,” says Rousseau. “It means that people don’t just come and hang around, which I think is why he wanted to get out of Kingston. It also reflects an aspect of his personality: that he can be by himself, can entertain himself. He’s quite happy to be alone.”

This instinct for solitude may have been at least partly responsible for the less-than-idyllic state of Barrington’s private life. He’s been married twice, 14 years each time, with a 20-year gap in between. (All three children from his first union have become successful artists in their own right. His 10-year-old son by his second wife plays the piano — not surprising, considering that his father’s favourite piece of music is Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.)

Musing on the failure of his marriages, Barrington declares, “I don’t think artists should ever be married, because you cannot give to your wife the kind of total devotion she needs. That goes to your art. Art is my first love, and it’s never going to be any different.” Nor did his predilection for painting sensual nude women help matters any. To avoid conflict, “I found myself painting goats and cows, to get motion,” he exclaims. “Until I asked myself, why am I doing this; and I drew a line.”

Lines, as everyone knows, are divisive. Even while acknowledging his own “selfishness” as an artist, Barrington is not without some rancor at the way his personal relationships have turned out. “You can’t help feeling a little bitter and disappointed,” he says. “It could easily have gone another way, if there had been more understanding.”

On his own once again, Barrington gives the impression of a man who, like fine wine, has mellowed nicely. Earlier photos show an almost fierce-visaged individual, an “angry young man”; and a 1987 self-portrait looks sad and aged. But the man sitting opposite me on the Kiskadee porch is trim and quizzical, his face barely lined, his eyebrows raised in constant mild amusement as he fiddles with his beloved pipe. “He was always popular with the girls,” recalls Pat Rousseau, of the teenager he once knew; and that fatal Barrington charm is evident even today.

Barrington wants his contribution to Caribbean art to last forever. In 1991, he created the Orange Park Trust and in 1994 deeded the property to the government, to be used after his death as a centre for the development of Jamaican and Caribbean art. Plans are being drawn up to include museum space, educational facilities, studios and exhibition galleries: this is Barrington’s latest obsession, his reach for immortality.

Meanwhile, however, still very much alive, each morning the artist cloisters himself in his old carriage-house studio, turns to his canvases, and banishes all distractions from his mind. Under the pure northern light that slants down through high overhead windows, Barrington Watson does what he does best, and loves most.

He paints.