A Cazabon mystery solved | On this day

James Ferguson uncovers the story behind an intriguing work by Michel-Jean Cazabon, Trinidad’s first great painter — with a little unexpected help from Caribbean Beat

  • Michel-Jean Cazabon’s View of Port of Spain from Laventille Hill. Photo by Harris Collection, courtesy Geoffrey MacLean

In our house in Oxford hangs a reproduction of a 19th-century oil painting. It depicts in great detail a view of Trinidad’s capital city — taking in hills, the port and a placid seascape that stretches away to the horizon. A Black man dressed in white robes and a red fez is pointing into the distance, explaining something to his white companion who sports a top hat and dark tailcoat. The latter is clearly someone of high socioeconomic status, and the two look down on a scene where landmarks of colonial Port of Spain — the cathedral, the lighthouse and so on — are clearly visible among exuberant tropical vegetation.

I bought this reproduction in the 1990s at an exhibition in London, liked it enough to have it properly framed, and look at it most days. But it gives little away as regards its backstory, and I have searched with limited success for more substantial information. All that is obvious is the painter’s signature — Cazabon, scrawled at the bottom right.

Michel-Jean Cazabon, of course, is by no means unknown — especially in his native Trinidad, where he was born 210 years ago in September 1813. His life has been well documented, and many of his works are accessible in galleries and online. But my print remains elusive, even if it is clearly one of his characteristic landscapes.

Cazabon (the name is Basque) was born near the southern town of San Fernando into a mixed-race, “free coloured” family that had migrated from Martinique after the Spanish colonial rulers of Trinidad encouraged European migration from 1783. They were prosperous people, and Michel-Jean was sent to school in England and then to Paris to study medicine.

He soon gave this up and studied art, travelling around Europe and learning from the various schools of art that had proliferated in the early 19th century. Landscapes became his speciality — mostly watercolours — but he was adept at portraits too, and he worked in various media including lithographs.

When he returned to Trinidad from France in 1852, accompanied by his French wife and daughter, he mixed in the wealthier echelons of colonial society, receiving commissions from officials, landowners, and merchants, who wanted a European-influenced landscape depiction of the island.

One of these works, I have come to realise, is the landscape whose reproduction I frequently look at, and whose top-hatted human subject is in fact Governor Harris

As Judy Raymond (well-known to Caribbean Beat readers as a writer and former editor) perceptively points out, his paintings were highly picturesque, idealised images of tropical nature and architecture, with little of the squalor and poverty of post-slavery plantation life. His subjects were often mixed-race or Indian-descended people — graceful and happy-looking, far from the impoverished former slave communities in and around Port of Spain. His real forte, though, was the flora of Trinidad — gorgeously lush immortelle trees, giant clumps of bamboo, towering palm trees.

Cazabon was successful. His work was published in Europe, and he produced multiple lithographs of everyday — and sanitised — Caribbean life, including agriculture, fishing and market scenes. But he was dissatisfied and in 1862 decided to move to Martinique, settling in Saint Pierre, then one of the most vibrant cultural centres in the Caribbean. Known as the “Paris of the West Indies”, it promised the bohemian thrill of Michel-Jean’s youth and a ready audience of wealthy patrons.

Yet the reality was less exciting, and Cazabon seems to have become quite quickly disillusioned with a society which was as limited as the one he had abandoned. His work up until his return to Trinidad in 1870 is less extensive and impressive, and it appears that he somehow lost his enthusiasm for the distinctive style he had previously developed. When he came back to Trinidad, he reportedly drank too much, had fewer high society contacts than before, and lived in relative poverty until his death in 1888.

Much of this rather tortured life is splendidly reimagined in Lawrence Scott’s novel Light Falling on Bamboo, which reveals the artist as struggling with a harsh colonial system that insisted that his work remain politically inoffensive and romanticised. Scott also emphasises the role of one individual in Cazabon’s life and career — namely Lord George Francis Robert Harris, who was Governor of Trinidad from 1846 to 1854.

Harris was, by the standards of the time, a relative liberal and reformer. He married the daughter of Port of Spain’s archdeacon, revamped the colonial education system, and encouraged the importation of indentured plantation workers from India in the wake of abolition.

In his heyday, Cazabon met and apparently befriended Governor Harris, who commissioned various works, recording his life in the colony. And one of these works, I have come to realise, is the landscape whose reproduction I frequently look at, and whose top-hatted human subject is in fact Governor Harris.

This explains a great deal about the picture in question. In a rare online reference (the blog of cultural organisation Alice Yard, co-founded by another of Caribbean Beat’s writers and editors, Nicholas Laughlin), it appears entitled View of Port of Spain from Laventille Hill. Elsewhere a date is given: 1850. It therefore seems to show the Governor of Trinidad, accompanied by a guide, surveying his colony from one of the hills that encircle the city.

Looking at the painting more closely, the guide is pointing towards an almost imperceptible detail on the horizon: a ship — with smoke pouring from a funnel and sails set — is resplendent with flags and ensign. Flanked by other ships, it is firing what are presumably celebratory cannon shots. The governor, then, is looking at a powerful symbol of British imperial might from his vantage point.

But this is by no means a simple expression of patriotic pride. Other details suggest that Cazabon was not celebrating British rule in Trinidad (Britain had taken over from Spain in 1797), but was hinting at more ambiguous perceptions. A mysterious woman lurks in the woods, while below in and near the city we see people strolling in the street, a cart moving along a thoroughfare, fishermen in a small boat, and smoke rising from a hillside fire — all the insignificant details of everyday life. The imperial display is almost incidental, of little interest, and pushed into a minor detail.

Governor Harris must have liked the picture since he took 34 Cazabon paintings with him when he left office in 1854. After a stint in Madras, he settled in the 18th century family seat of Belmont House in Kent, England, where Cazabon’s works can now be viewed alongside a tour of the elegant house and gardens. The Belmont website features six beautiful paintings — picturesque tropical scenes with great houses and charming peasant cottages — but no reference to “my” picture.

Of course, it was Caribbean Beat (Spring 1994) that finally helped solve the mystery. Here, Geoffrey Maclean, author of an acclaimed book on Cazabon, described how he had visited Belmont House in 1991 — before the pictures were exhibited — and found, in an attic, several paintings:

“Several were on a scale not seen before in Cazabon’s work; one of them, the largest I have seen, shows a view of Port of Spain from Laventille Hill, with the Governor in a top-hat surveying the city with his guide.”

I am most grateful to Mr Maclean. I will go to Belmont shortly to view the original.

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