There are few artists in Jamaica’s history who can claim master painter status. The late Cecil Cooper, CD was one of these. Grand dame Edna Manley, OM another. Former Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica Director/ Chief Curator Dr. The Hon. David Boxer O.J. was himself, yet if asked the question whom of his peers he would give that title it’s pretty safe to assume that the first name from his lips would be Barrington Watson.
As a fine artist Barrington Watson achieved during his lifetime accomplishments of which any outlier in sport, music, from Jamaica or any international context would be proud. He gained first name recognition among most of Jamaican society, as evident in his hallmark signature and the vernacular of both cultural insiders as well as everyday middle class art lovers, and his eponymous Gallery Barrington first established in 1974. His work gained cult status as owning a ‘Barrington’ quickly became a mark of social and intellectual status amongst collectors on the island and throughout the wider diaspora. He achieved commercial success that he was able to enjoy and share with his family during his lifetime, something that even the most prolific artists worldwide struggle to achieve today.
Perhaps most importantly, Barrington is recognised as a hallmark founding member of an elite clout of artists and cultural leaders who helped shape and document the nation’s post Independence visual arts landscape. Barrington served his country through his role as a former curator of the Bank of Jamaica collection, the foremost corporate art collection of its time who’s patronage ushered in age of corporate and private collecting on the island; as a teacher of the arts at a tertiary level in Jamaica and abroad, most notably in 1962 when he served as the first Director of Studies at the Jamaica School of Art (now the Edna Manley College); and as a patron of the arts and cultural nation builder in his own right when he bequeathed his beloved Orange Park estate to the nation in trust in1994. Watson’s role in shaping Jamaica’s post independence culture has been been officially recognised by numerous awards and accolades, including the Order of Distinction, Commander Class in 1984; the Gold Musgrave Medal in 2000; the Order of Jamaica in 2006 and a monumental multi-site solo retrospective in 2012 organised by the National Gallery, an exhibition that still holds the record for the most attendees at any opening reception!
Barrington is credited with producing some of the most iconic and well-loved (because one does not necessarily guarantee the other) works in the national psyche, such as ‘Mother and Child’ and ‘Conversation’ in the collection of the National Gallery; various studies of the West Indies cricket team; ‘Spirit of Garvey‘ an homage to revivalist Jamaican religious tradition, and a series of epic history paintings and murals that tell a narrative of the story of Jamaica itself including ‘The Garden Party’ permanently installed at the Bank of Jamaica and the ‘Our Heritage’ mural at The Olympia Gallery. His iconic stylistic treatment of the female form, often nude, always imposing; a strong and masterfully coloured montage of brown tones is perhaps his greatest legacy on canvas. Orange Park serves as his legacy on land.
The Barrington the public knew was a raconteur, friends with key members of Jamaican society such as the celebrated attorney Pat Rousseau, respected business leader Joe Matalon and former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, all of whom collected his work with fervour and supported his ideals of positioning Jamaican art among the larger international canon of ‘high’ art.
Re-shaping Jamaica’s visual arts sector not only on the island but also as a more significant presence abroad were essential components of Barrington’s mission in life and distinctive facets of his character. Born January 9, 1931, the son of a prominent pharmacist who his family had intended to become a lawyer, despite his prowess as an athlete and student at the prestigious Kingston College high school, Barrington went against his father’s wishes to pursue his dreams of becoming an artist. As a youth in 1953, Barrington was among the first students of colour ever accepted at the Royal Academy of Art in London, apparently the first black student admitted to the College of Painting . Ten years later Barrington spent time travelling through Europe to hone his academic realist style, despite his contemporaries predilection for abstraction. Mastery of fine painterly techniques were a key part of his style and can be seen as on par with influencing his fastidious efforts in injecting the Jamaican visual arts community with a more academically rigorous structure, as well as cultivating more professional attitude toward artists and within the artistic community. He restructured the Jamaica School of Art to mimic the traditional English art school, and as a founding member of the Contemporary Jamaican Artist’s Association he was a key part of insisting that the codes of commercial conduct belonged firmly in the local art world. Watson was also a key voice against the popularly lauded ‘Intuitive’ movement, as he saw the celebration of the naive on par with the academically proven as a dangerous comparison that only served to reinforce Western stereotypes of what Jamaican art could and should look like. One of Barrington’s more widely circulated “mantras” was “I utilise …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.”
Outspoken and dedicated to his craft, afternoons on the verandah at Orange Park were spent either drinking with his friends or mentoring students in fine art traditions. His purchase of the 400-year old coffee plantation in 1968 that he faithfully restored, preserving its delicate Georgian fretwork, cut-stone facades and checkerboard courtyard to fully recoup the classic cottage charm. For Barrington Orange Park started out as a means of finding an escape from the pace of Kingston; Barrington preferred to wake early and enjoy freshly picked fruit from the estate prepared by his wife Doreen, then days spent in his light filled studio. Sunday afternoons were time spent with the sort of friends who would brave the drive. Later on he completely retreated to the estate to live full time, and only at the end of his life did he return to Kingston out of medical necessity. Doreen recalls when one of his models, who had to brave a long taxi ride from Kingston to studio for sitting sessions, turned on Barrington and threatened to burn the place down. This, and the pervasive presence of a ghostlike figure Barrington insisted was a former resident who lingered among the walls, and who appeared in several portraits as Samantha, were the only disruptions to an idyllic country life.The Jamaica National Heritage Trust keeps a record of Orange Park noting that the earliest records of the plantation exist from 1821 as a coffee plantation, which by 1847 had diversified to include pimento and breed cattle, but by 1920 was somewhat abandoned and un-cultivated.
“The property has a main house, two tennis courts, three studio cottages, and a main studio which is filled with some of the artist’s most prized paintings and antique furniture. According to one writer, Watson has demonstrated by his life’s work a commitment to contribute to the realisation in Jamaica that art is not only an expression of human creativity but also an aid to the cultivation of human sensibility and consequently to a more humane and civil society…Watson’s presence at Orange Park has transformed the old coffee plantation into a meeting place for artists and art lovers. Watson commented that the property has been a rendezvous for several distinguished artists including the late Edna Manley who in speaking of it said “this is a creative place”.
In keeping with his wishes and laid out with legal instruction almost a decade before his passing in 2016, a star-filled corporate board that manages the trust and property, comprising former friends including Joe Matalon and The Hon. P.J. Patterson, ON, PC, QC will oversee the preservation of the estate and it’s use as Barrington wished as a centre for the arts, comprising a mixture of archival resource, exhibition, education and recreation in St. Thomas. Orange Park is located just under an hour from the town of Yallahs. St. Thomas was a productive parish during the plantation economy, and the site of major turning points in Jamaican and British colonial history, such as the Morant Bay Rebellion (staged in the parish capital). The parish is also the birthplace of one of Jamaica’s first named national heroes Paul Bogle. Yet despite it’s rich history, St. Thomas is still the poorest parish of Jamaica.
The planned development of the estate into an arts attraction and restaurant is expected to take over three phases and is hoped will provide an economic boost to this under-developed part of the island attracting the Kingston elite, tourists, and offering a new form of recreation for locals themselves. The plans include a seasonal programme of concerts, art exhibitions, culinary events in the courtyard restaurant and of course a well-curated archival display of Barrington’s life and work.
Barrington’s legacy as an artist is un-disputed. His masterful style is used as a point of reference in the canon of Jamaican art and his works remain a prized trophy amongst art collectors. The retrospective granted to him by the National Gallery in 2012 was organised thematically in order to more adequately represent “an artist of great consistency of thought and idea”. As an artist whose work can be characterised in this sense, it is this concern and care with history and heritage that can be felt in the detail of Orange Park, a site that is poised to provide a welcome cultural oasis in an under-appreciated and history rich parish.