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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)).