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Exploration and Travel
25 September 2003
London, King Street
Augustin Brunias (c.1730-1796)
A family of Charaibes in the Island of St. Vincent
oil on canvas
22 x 24in. (56 x 61cm.)
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AMERICAS (Lots 424-446)
TWO PICTURES FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST'S PATRON, SIR WILLIAM YOUNG, Bt. (1725-1788), FIRST BRITISH GOVERNOR OF DOMINICA
Brunias is recorded in Rome from 1748 where he was a student at the Accademia del Disegno di S. Luca. He was employed as a draughtsman by Robert Adam in Italy in 1756 ('he does all my Ornaments, and all my figures vastly well', R. Adam in a letter to his brother James, Sept. 1756). He accompanied Adam to England in 1758 continuing to work as an architectural draughtsman and extending his repertoire to produce, under Adam's direction, a View of Inverary for the Duke of Argyll in 1758 and five paintings to decorate the Breakfast Room at Kedlestone Hall in 1761. Brunias exhibited landscapes at the Free Society of Artists in 1762 and 1763, worked under the direction of the architect William Chambers in 1765-67 and in 1770 exhibited two drawings 'after nature' at The Society of Arts submitted 'From the West Indies'.
Brunias is thought to have accompanied Sir William Young, the first British Governor of Dominica, to the West Indies in 1770, and his work from this time on concentrates on subjects in the West Indies, in particular in Dominica, St. Vincent, Saint Chrisopher and Barbados, painted for Sir William Young and for the rich white oligarchs who ran estates on the islands, such as Sir Patrick Blake and Sir Ralph Payne (Captain-General and Govenor-in-Chief of the Leeward Islands). He appears to have returned to England in 1773 (the date given in Edwards' History for the present two pictures) and was resident in Soho when he exhibited Dominican subjects at the Royal Academy in 1777 and 1779. First editions of engravings after his West Indian pictures were 'Published by the Proprietor, No. 7 Broad Street, Soho' (the address from which he submitted his two R.A. exhibits in 1779) in 1779-80. He returned to work in the West Indies in the 1780s and settled there until his death in Roseau, Dominica, in April 1796.
Brunias's work provides an important record of life in the Lesser Antilles in the late eighteenth century, depicting the islands at the zenith of British military and commercial domination. Unlike Thomas Hearne, who had been similarly employed (following Brunias to the West Indies in 1771 to commemorate Sir Ralph Payne's stewardship of the Leeward Islands in a series of twenty large topographical watercolours), Brunias's surviving pictures, including these works to commemorate Young's governorship, reveal that he became primarily a figure painter in the West Indies, concentrating on the variety of races (European, African, Carib) and the new culture of the mulatto. Such subject matter attracted the attention of the French ethnologist Hamy in 1890 (E.-T. Hamy, 'Alexander Brunias, Peintre ethnographe de la fin du XVIIIe siècle, Courte Notice sur son Oeuvre', L'Anthropologie, I, 1890, pp.49-56) who praised Brunias's verité ethnographique over that of Cook's artists Hodges and Webber. Brunias's compositions do nevertheless have much in common with the engrossing and theatrical work of those English artists steeped in academic and classical tradition who travelled to the New World and the South Seas in the latter part of the eighteenth century. For a postcolonial reading of Brunias's work see B.F. Tobin, Picturing Imperial Power, Durham and London, 1999, pp.139-173.
Little else has been published on Brunias and details of his commissions in the West Indies are mostly gleaned from dedications on various editions of his engravings: two scenes in Jamaica and Dominica are dedicated to Charles O'Hara 'Brigadier General of his Majesty's Army in America', and previously Crown Surveyor in Dominica; others, of scenes in Dominica, St. Vincent and Barbados to Sir William Young, Sir John Frederick, Sir Patrick Blake and Sir Ralph Payne.
The present two pictures came from Brunias's primary colonial commission, for Sir William Young, and are, appropriately, two of the artist's most distinguished works. Both were published in Edwards' History (in various editions from 1794-1807) where each is described as 'drawn from the life... from an original painting by Agostino Brunyas in the possession of Sir William Young Bart FRS', having descended to the son after the Governor's death in 1788. The pictures reappeared as pendants at auction in Paris in 1951, and the sale included two further and similar pendants by the artist (lot 2537; Sir Allured Clarke negociant un traité avec un tribe de St. Dominique. Scène de la vie familiale à la Guadaloupe ' (Art Prices Current, XXVIII (1950-51)).
Sir William Young, Bt. (1715-1788) and by descent to his son,
Sir William Young, Bt., FRS (1749-1815).
Anon sale, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 9 March 1951, lot 74.
Private collection, France.
by T. Milton in B. Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, 4th ed., 1807, I, facing p.407.
This picture is one of several St. Vincent subjects painted by Brunias for Sir William Young, who ran extensive estates on the island and was one of three commissioners of the island. Brunias provides a rare view from life of the indigenous inhabitants of the West Indies, shortly before they were dispossessed by European settlers and their numbers were reduced by disease. The Caribs (Charaibes), related to the Indian tribes of South America, were first encountered by Columbus in 1492, on his famous voyage to find a new passage to Asia. Columbus recorded the rumour that Caribs 'eat men', beginning a long line of descriptions of Caribs as fierce and cannibalistic.
After decades of warring over the islands of the Lesser Antilles, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (10 February 1763), Britain was given Dominica, St. Vincent and Tobago, while the French gained St. Lucia: 'the Charaibes not being once mentioned in the whole transaction, as if no such people existed' (Edwards, p.391).
Edwards's commentary opposite Milton's engraving of the present picture describes the indigenous people at the time: '[The Charaibes] were in truth reduced to a miserable remnant. - Of the ancient, or, as they were called by the English, Red Charaibes [to distinguish them from the Black Charaibes, mixed-race descendants of Caribs and escaped slaves], not more than a hundred families survived in 1763, and of all their ancient extensive possessions, these poor people retained only a mountainous district in the Island of St. Vincent. (a) See the plate annexed, which contains an accurate delineation of a family of these poor people still existing in this island, under the patronage and protection of Sir William Young' (Edwards, p.391).
Brunias faithfully delineates the Caribs, including their colourful feathered and woven ornaments, red body paint, palm-thatched houses, straight black hair and copper skin, which set them apart both from the black African slaves and the European settlers. Edwards describes them as cunning hunters, polygamous, with complex religious beliefs and bloody initiation ceremonies when boys passed into manhood.
Sir William Young was involved in many negotiations with the Black and Red Caribs, trying to stop them raiding plantations, and encouraging them to allow road building through their land. In 1795 St. Vincent's Black Caribs, encouraged by the French, rose up against the English, killing settlers and burning sugar plantations; the younger Sir William Young lost one of his estates. The Carib War ended in 1797, when over five thousand Caribs (many of whom died on the journey) were deported to the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras.
Today very few pure-blooded 'Red' Caribs still exist in the islands of the West Indies. A few remain on St. Vincent, and a few thousand live on Dominica, where the community is undergoing a cultural revival. Despite all the prophecies of doom, Caribs still survive, and many words from their language - canoe, hammock, barbecue, hurricane, among others - have passed into English.
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