Friday, 26 August 2011

The Lost Portraits

Vidia Naipaul remarked that in the 1800s the Caribbean was somewhat like the Middle East today. All the important people went there.

And truly, the list is impressive. Admiral Lord Nelson sailed from the Gulf of Paria to the Battle of Trafalgar in pursuit of the French admiral Villeneuve. A few years before, the Comte de Grasse, a famous French admiral, sailed these waters, as did the Comte d’Estress, Rodney and Vaughn. Sir Ralph Abercromby, who captured this island from the Spanish, died at the battle of Alexandria in 1801, where he commanded the British army. General Picton gave his life at the battle of Waterloo. Don Cosimo Churruca also died in the wars in Egypt. He had established the first meridian of longitude in the New World in Trinidad in 1792, by the observation of the planets.

Very little remains as reminders of those heroic years, and sad to say the few things that did survive have but all been lost, for example, the portraits that once hung in Port-of-Spain’s old Town Hall. It is recorded in Conrad Bismark Franklyn’s papers that on the 24th and 25th of March, 1808, that a great calamity had befallen Port-of-Spain, and a devastating fire destroyed the whole town. The houses in those days were wooden with thatched or shingled roofs, and as a result burnt quickly. Amongst the many buildings that were gutted by the fire was the Cabildo Hall. Fortunately, the ancient records of this august body were saved, and so too were the portraits of Sir Ralph Abercromby and Sir Thomas Picton. The Town Hall in those days was situated in Charlotte Street, a little way from Queen Street, on the right going up.

The portraits had been done in crayon, which was the fashion in those days, by John Russell. Russell had been known as the painter to the British royal court at St. James, and had painted both George III and his son, the Prince of Wales.

In 1815, the Cabildo purchased a house on the corner of Brunswick Square (now Woodford Square) and the pictures were hung there. They were eventually copied in oils and decorated the main hall. Sir Thomas Hislop’s portrait was also commissioned and hung in the hall.

After the death of Sir Ralph Woodford, the Hon. Ashton Warner brought to Trinidad the full-length portrait of Woodford. This had been done by Sir Thomas Lawrence, the most famous portrait painter of his day, whose work is collected by Queen Elizabeth II.

Another significant portrait was that of acting governor (1821 - 1823) Sir Aretas W. Young. This portrait was painted by M. R. Eckstein, a local man. Lord Harris too had his portrait painted by another local artist, E.D. Faure.

With the exception of the portrait of Woodford, all of these were destroyed by fire when the town hall burnt down in the 1940s. Apart from the great loss suffered as a result of the destruction of these very valuable works of art, a part of the ancient record of our country was also lost. The lost portraits would have contained information that would be useful to students and historians today.

One remarkable piece of art that has come down to us is the life-size monument by the renowned sculpturist Chartrey, which was erected in Trinity Cathedral in memory of Woodford, by the inhabitants of Trinidad as “a lasting memorial of his many public and private virtues and of their respect and gratitude”.


Christopher Bhagwandin said...

why not have a facebook column with minor monthly or weekly posts- it would reach a much wider audience

Christopher Bhagwandin said...

why not have a facebook column with minor monthly or weekly posts- it would reach a much wider audience

Amrit Persad said...

A must-read, not only for historians but for citizens of Trinidad and Tobago to educated themselves on history that they may have never knew existed in the first place. Definitely, a fantastic piece in which the author crafts precisely by intentionally grasping the reader's attention by comparing the Caribbean back in the 1800s to the Middle East in the present day helping us to understand that everyone travelled there. This fact is then supported by giving a brief history of the many travellers that sailed the Gulf of Paria to help the reader understand the history involved in those waters. He then explains that very little remained from these historical years and due to the devastating incident known as "The Great Fire of 1808" which destroyed all of the town, all this historical evidence was destroyed with the exception of paintings etc located in Town Hall. We are then told that much effort was implemented in preserving these painting done in crayon by repainting in oil. However, due to another fire that occurred in Town Hall in the 1940s, these paintings with the exception of a few were destroyed and was lost. Not only were the fires a devastating ordeal to encounter but also a part of our country ancient record has now been erased forever. This article helps explain the tragic loss we suffered as it explains what exactly we lost and will never be able to recreate. The younger generation and even the current will only be able to learn of this history only by stories told and not by physical evidence which we once had and can never recreate.