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by Bridget Brereton

Cazabon and his art

In 1986, Geoffrey MacLean published his pioneering biography of the Trinidadian painter M. J. Cazabon (1813-1888), and in 1999 he brought out a book highlighting the paintings he did for one of his patrons, Lord Harris. Now the art dealer, publisher and gallery owner Mark Pereira, whose earlier research had contributed to the 1986 biography, has edited a new book, Cazabon New Perspectives, which was launched earlier this month.
This beautifully produced book contains four illustrated essays, and many pages of reproductions. The essays focus less on the man and more on his pictures, seen in the context of the artistic trends and techniques of his time. Two of T&T’s most distinguished painters help the ordinary reader, like myself, understand what lay behind Cazabon’s work. Ken Crichlow devotes a close and professional analysis to four of his landscapes, the genre for which Cazabon is best known, and shows how he created a “visual narrative” using the techniques of the wider tradition of European landscape painting of his time.

Jackie Hinkson, who like Cazabon has been doing “plein-air” (outdoors) painting for many decades, writes beautifully about how his predecessor was always “reaching for the light”, seeking to capture the ever changing quality of light and atmosphere in a tropical country. Ultimately, Hinkson concludes, “it is impossible not to feel an enormous gratitude, admiration and even astonishment for a man who devoted his life to expressing his vision of our land, our landscape as he saw it a hundred and fifty years ago”.

The writer and biographer Judy Raymond discusses the “extent to which Cazabon edited reality in his images of the Trinidad of the nineteenth century”—unsurprisingly, the answer is quite a lot—and compares his images with those of an earlier artist, Richard Bridgens, who published pictures of Trinidad life in the 1830s. (Raymond wrote a book about him and his art, The Colour of Shadows.) Though Cazabon was certainly the better artist, Bridgens’ pictures were more “realistic” in their depictions of Trinidad, and he was more interested in people as opposed to Cazabon’s concentration on scenery, buildings, seascapes and tropical vegetation.

It’s valuable to compare Cazabon to his contemporaries, and the well-researched essay by Pereira introduces us to several men and one woman (Margaret Mann) who were also painting or drawing Trinidad scenes in the nineteenth century, most of whom will be news to the ordinary reader. In this essay, Pereira juxtaposes examples of their work with comparable paintings or lithographs by Cazabon.

All the essays are lavishly illustrated, and the second half of the book features about 60 pages of full-colour reproductions of Cazabon’s pictures, plus a few by contemporary artists. These include paintings Cazabon did in France, Britain, Italy and North Africa as a young man, before he returned to Trinidad in 1848, and some lithographs of scenes in Georgetown, Guyana. Most of these plates, of course, are of Trinidad scenes (less often, people); some are familiar, but many are not. For over a hundred works by Cazabon have been discovered since the 1980s, many by Pereira, who was able to bring some of them home to Trinidad. The book will therefore be a revelation even to readers who think they know Cazabon’s work well, through the two earlier books and the fine collection in the National Museum and Art Gallery.

This new book, elegantly designed and handsomely produced, is a visual delight. Along with the earlier books, it ensures that a man who had fallen into obscurity for decades after he died will always be recognised as the leading Trinidadian artist of the nineteenth century, a European-trained painter who saw and painted the beauty of his tropical island.

Bridget Brereton