Barrington Watson: Father of modern art

Observer senior reporter

Thursday, June 15, 2017

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This is the third in our daily series highlighting 55 Jamaicans who broke down barriers and helped put the country on the world stage. Each day, one personality will be featured, culminating Independence Day, August 6.


FOR many, painter Barrington Watson is the father of the local art movement.

Born in 1931 in Hanover, Watson was educated at London's Royal College of Art, attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris and the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam, amongst other major European art academies. Returning to Jamaica in 1961, he quickly became one of the most influential post-Independence artistic figures.

Alongside fellow artists Eugene Hyde and Karl Parboosingh, he established the Contemporary Jamaican Artists' Association in 1964 and was, from 1962 to 1966, the first director of studies at the Jamaica School of Art (now part of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts), where he introduced the full-time diploma programme.

In a 2012 interview with the Jamaica Observer, Watson spoke glowingly of a retrospective of the work on show at the National Gallery of Jamaica in downtown Kingston.

“I am pleased that it has happened before I die,” he chuckled.

“This collection of a life's work is saying several different things. But primarily, it highlights the fact that Jamaica is truly multiracial/cultural and we can draw on anything — be it the European and academic and represent it legitimately, or draw on African culture and represent that side of us very well. It is a well-rounded exhibition,” he said.

For him, art is an indicator of the standard of living of a people. Therefore, Jamaican art must move with the times and reflect what is happening in society today — a sort of history book.

The Barrington Watson history book is dotted with a number of notables. He executed many official portraits, including those of past prime ministers of Jamaica (Alexander Bustamante, Donald Sangster, Hugh Shearer, Michael Manley, Edward Seaga and PJ Patterson), Martin Luther King (1970) at Spelman College, and former Commonwealth Secretary General and UWI Chancellor Sir Shridath Ramphal at the University of the West Indies — Mona (1992) and Marlborough House in London (1995). His work is well represented in the National Gallery of Jamaica Collection, with masterworks such as Mother and Child (1958-59), Washerwomen (1966), Athlete's Nightmare II (1966), Conversation (1981) and Fishing Village (1996), and he is featured in many other public, corporate and private collections in Jamaica and internationally.

In 1984, he was awarded Commander of the Order of Distinction by the Jamaica government for his contribution to art.

Watson died on January 26, 2016 at age 85.

At his passing, executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica Dr Verlee Poupeye noted, “Barrington Watson was a defining figure in post-Independence Jamaican art and his work reflects the spirit and imagination of independent Jamaica. He was instrumental in the professionalisation of the Jamaican art world, and an outspoken and influential voice in the development of modern art in Jamaica.”

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