The talented Mr Bridgens

by Nicholas Laughlin on December 8, 2010

Detail from West India Sketches, by Richard Bridgens

Detail from West India Scenery (1836), by Richard Bridgens

This week the CRB publishes Jonathan Ali’s review of Moloch Tropical, the most recent film by the Haitian director Raoul Peck; as well as an essay by Judy Raymond on the nineteenth-century Trinidadian artist Michel Jean Cazabon. “He’s considered a pioneer,” Raymond writes,

and indeed in some respects he was. Even more importantly, we think of Cazabon as one of us. He was a Trinidadian, of mixed race, and his work evokes pride and nostalgia and a sense of pleasing familiarity . . . But the nostalgia evoked by Cazabon is for a Trinidad that may never have existed. And the more you look at his paintings, the odder they start to seem.

That’s because we look at him as if he were unique. In fact, Cazabon fits firmly into a tradition, and once he is set into this context, his paintings become, if no less idiosyncratic, then at least more understandable.

Raymond goes on to contrast Cazabon’s paintings and drawings with those of another artist working in Trinidad a generation earlier: the Englishman Richard Bridgens, today remembered by scholars and collectors for his West India Scenery (1836), an album of lithographs. Raymond — the editor of Caribbean Beat, Parliament columnist for the Sunday Express, and author of two biographical books — is now at work on a study of Bridgens, of whom, it turns out, relatively few documents have survived. Via email, she answered a few questions about her interest in Bridgens and the challenges of her research.

Nicholas Laughlin: Why did you choose Bridgens as a subject?

Judy Raymond: While I was researching what became the essay on Cazabon that you very kindly published in the CRB, I wanted to put Cazabon in context. His European artistic antecedents are sometimes mentioned, but you don’t hear anything about art in Trinidad before him. When I looked around, there was Mr Bridgens, lurking modestly in the wings, as was his wont.

I wanted to find out a bit more about him in turn: what was his professional background, and, other than designing the first, ill-fated Red House and drawing pictures of the slaves, what other work did he produce — and I was amazed by the answers. His career was surprisingly high-level and very diverse artistically and geographically, and the importance of his pictures of Trinidad is still massively underestimated, though a few academics have recently rediscovered him.

He’s now become an obsession. When I leave Parliament [in Port of Spain] on a Friday afternoon I’m picturing what his Red House would have looked like, with Prince Street running through the centre. Or what he would have seen in the 1830s, while he was walking home up St Vincent Street from the government offices, where he was the superintendent of public works, to his house in the new part of town, overlooking the Ariapita estate.

NL: Your two previous biographical works were of living subjects, available for interview and possessing their own archives. Where have you looked for and found material on Bridgens? Is there much archival material on him in Trinidad?

JR: Bridgens is a very shadowy figure, and there isn’t a lot of information on him anywhere. He knew and worked with a really stellar group of people, but I suspect his problem was that he lacked any talent for self-promotion. For instance, he did important work on the interior of Sir Walter Scott’s house, Abbotsford, but the first couple of times he crops up in Scott’s letters, it’s as “Mr Buggins” (a rather hobbit-like variant of his name). He didn’t always show up on the radar.

Worse, family history said his personal papers were destroyed in one of the many fires that have ravaged Port of Spain over the years. The surviving information on him has to be mined, nugget by nugget, and then the pieces put together like a jigsaw puzzle, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor.

My research so far has included visiting Holy Trinity Cathedral to look at the statue of Sir Ralph Woodford, and reading the slave compensation registers from 1836 (very well kept at the national library, I’m happy to say — a gloved librarian turned each page for me). I may yet go and browse through the burial registers at Lapeyrouse Cemetery.

But generally it would have been easier if I’d been based in London, or had access to the Yale Centre for British Art.

NL: Your essay on Cazabon in the current CRB argues for a more nuanced interpretation of his work than is generally held. Will your book on Bridgens suggest a new line of thinking on his work?

JR: Overall, yes, partly because so far as I know, no one has joined up the dots and told the story of his life and the course of his whole career, though different periods of it have received specialised attention.

But more importantly, when I tell people who know the pictures in West India Scenery what I’m working on, they say something like, “But those pictures are so horrible and racist!” Yes, they are — the book was published in 1836, and Bridgens was absolutely a man of his time, and had a vested interest in slavery.

But there’s much more to the pictures than that. I think just as novelists say their characters take on lives of their own, the same thing happened with the people in Bridgens’s drawings. They started off as caricatures and became portraits. In spite of himself, he was fascinated by them.

As a result, we know all sorts of details of the lives of people who would otherwise be totally forgotten, having been taken captive as children somewhere in west Africa just over two centuries ago, and then enslaved on sugar estates in north Trinidad. Bridgens inadvertently preserved their memories. I’ve even been able to put tentative names to a couple of the slaves in his pictures.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Lloyd King December 10, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Just a Question: would the slaves Bridgens depicted have come directly from West Africa or were they not brought’ like Cazabon’s family from Martinique or Haiti?

Judy Raymond December 11, 2010 at 9:35 am

Bridgens drew slaves on a number of estates. The ones on his own estate were typical of the whole colony. That is, most of them were born in Africa; some were “creoles of Trinidad,” ie born in Trinidad; and a few were imported from other islands–in this case, from Antigua.
The Cazabons were free coloured slave-owners who probably brought their slaves with them from Martinique to Trinidad.

Vahni Capildeo January 17, 2011 at 8:55 am

Can’t wait to see this book. Essential and inspiring work.

Dorothy Sloan November 6, 2011 at 7:52 pm

I am doing research on a Richard Bridgens whose suggested dates are ca. 1819-ca. 1891. The person I am working on was a surveyor, artist, map maker and architect. Here is what I have on him so far. I hope we can share information. It may be that the name Richard Bridgens was used for a father and son, or some other relation. My rough notes thus far:
Little is known of R.P. Bridgens (ca. 1819-ca. 1891), whose first name may have been Richard, and who may have originated from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where at least one map was published in his name (Map of the township of Manor Lancaster County, Pa. from the original surveys by R.P. Bridgens, C.E. Philadelphia: Lith. & published by R. & H[enry] F. Bridgens, 1852; for more on the Bridgens publishing of castral maps and atlases of Pennsylvania, see Mark P. Conzen,
“The county landownership map in America: Its Commericial Development and Social Transformation: 1814-1939″ in Imago Mundi, Vol. 36 (1984), p. 17). In 1851, a Richard P. Bridgens engaged in a survey of Charleston, South Carolina, the field notes of which survive (Helen G. McCormack, “A Provisional Guide to Manuscripts in the South Carolina Historical Society in The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Vol. 46, No. 3 (July, 1945) p. 175. The present R.P. Bridgens is almost assuredly the architect who around 1868 went from San Francisco to Japan, where he designed several buildings, most notably the Shimbashi Railway Station (1872; documented in a wood-block print by Hiroshige), the Yokohama Railway Station (1872), and the Hōraisha office building (1872). Bridgens “was the only private architect who came to Japan in those early days, [and] very little is known about Bridgens’ career” (K. Abe, “Early Western Architecture in Japan” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 13, No. 2, May, 1954, pp. 15-18). He was hired by the Japanese government to teach their subjects in Japan during the early Meiji era.

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