The Talented Mr Bridgens

In “The Talented Mr Bridgens,” Nicholas Laughlin introduces Judy Raymond, the editor of Caribbean Beat, Parliament columnist for the Sunday Express, and author of two biographical books: Barbara Jardine: Goldsmith (2006) and Meiling: Fashion Designer (2007). In November, the Caribbean Review of Books featured Raymond’s “Out of Sight,” an article on the creative omissions of Trinidadian nineteenth-century artist Michel Jean Cazabon.

Raymond also contrasts Cazabon’s paintings and drawings with those of another artist working in Trinidad a generation earlier: the Englishman Richard Bridgens, known for his collection of lithographs West India Scenery (1836). She is now at work on a study of Bridgens. Earlier this month, Laughlin interviewed Raymond to find out about her interest in the artist and the challenges of her research.

Nicholas Laughlin: Why did you choose Bridgens as a subject?

Judy Raymond: While I was researching what became the essay on Cazabon that you very kindly published in the CRB, I wanted to put Cazabon in context. His European artistic antecedents are sometimes mentioned, but you don’t hear anything about art in Trinidad before him. When I looked around, there was Mr Bridgens, lurking modestly in the wings, as was his wont.

I wanted to find out a bit more about him in turn: what was his professional background, and, other than designing the first, ill-fated Red House and drawing pictures of the slaves, what other work did he produce — and I was amazed by the answers. His career was surprisingly high-level and very diverse artistically and geographically, and the importance of his pictures of Trinidad is still massively underestimated, though a few academics have recently rediscovered him. [. . .]

NL: Your essay on Cazabon in the current CRB argues for a more nuanced interpretation of his work than is generally held. Will your book on Bridgens suggest a new line of thinking on his work?

JR: Overall, yes, partly because so far as I know, no one has joined up the dots and told the story of his life and the course of his whole career, though different periods of it have received specialised attention.

But more importantly, when I tell people who know the pictures in West India Scenery what I’m working on, they say something like, “But those pictures are so horrible and racist!” Yes, they are — the book was published in 1836, and Bridgens was absolutely a man of his time, and had a vested interest in slavery. But there’s much more to the pictures than that. I think just as novelists say their characters take on lives of their own, the same thing happened with the people in Bridgens’s drawings. They started off as caricatures and became portraits. In spite of himself, he was fascinated by them.

As a result, we know all sorts of details of the lives of people who would otherwise be totally forgotten, having been taken captive as children somewhere in West Africa just over two centuries ago, and then enslaved on sugar estates in north Trinidad. Bridgens inadvertently preserved their memories. I’ve even been able to put tentative names to a couple of the slaves in his pictures.

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