An earlier version of this article was published in the Jamaica Monitor of September 5, 2021
This week, I start a new series in which I explore and contextualize famous and less well-known works of Jamaican art. The subject of this week’s column is Philip Wickstead’s Portrait of Benjamin and Mary Pusey, which has been tentatively dated to circa 1775. The portrait depicts a well-known Jamaican planter couple, in what is presumably the setting of their great house. At 39 by 49 inches, the oil on canvas painting is also one of the largest, if not the largest colonial-era painting in the National Gallery of Jamaica’s collection.
The painting entered the collection of the Institute of Jamaica in 1944, along with a contemporary portrait of Richard and Jane Pusey, also by Wickstead, as a gift of one Miss Carolyn Nias, in appreciation of Jamaica’s contribution to World War II (and, by implication, its loyalty to England). The two paintings were exhibited at the National Gallery of Jamaica in 1975, in its seminal Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica exhibition, which was the first general historical survey of Jamaican art. The paintings were in 1976 transferred to the National Gallery’s collection, along with other colonial-era art holdings of the Institute and the Portrait of Benjamin and Mary Pusey has since about 1985 been on permanent view in the historical galleries. It is a classic and very instructive example of plantation era art.
Phillip Wickstead, an English painter who had been a pupil of Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) in Rome, came to Jamaica around 1773 under the patronage of the Jamaican planter and writer William Beckford of Sommerley, along with the landscape painter George Robertson (1748?-1788). Wickstead’s date of birth is unknown, but he probably belonged to the same generation as Robertson. While Robertson left Jamaica after completing his series of landscape paintings, which were subsequently engraved in England, Wickstead stayed on and sought to become a planter. He was not successful, however, and reportedly started drinking. Several of his paintings are said to have been destroyed in the Great Hurricane of October 1780. This storm caused significant damage in western Jamaica and brought ruin to Beckford’s properties near Savanna-la-Mar. Wickstead may have been similarly affected. It is uncertain whether Wickstead stayed in Jamaica until the end of his life, but he died in 1790, probably still a relatively young man in his forties.
Wickstead was primarily a portraitist and his Portrait of Benjamin and Mary Pusey is one of several planter family portraits that have survived to the present day. Sources such as Beckford also mention genre paintings, depicting the enslaved at work in the sugar cane fields, but to my knowledge, none of these have survived. Although he obviously had significant support from the local plantocracy, Wickstead was not a prolific painter. Beckford characterized him as “a man whose powers of painting were considerably weakened by his natural indolence, and most of all, by his wonderful eccentricity of character… Had he cultivated his profession with as much zeal as he displayed in his friendship, and had been as industrious as he was honest, he might have finished many works in Jamaica, which would not only have added to the weight of his purse, but to the durability of his fame.”
Wickstead’s presumed teacher, Zoffany, was a German neoclassical painter, who was active in England, Italy, and India. Zoffany is best known as an exponent of the “conversation piece” genre. Conversation pieces are informal group portraits that may be set indoors or in a landscape, with the persons depicted engaged in genteel conversation and social interaction. The genre was fashionable in the 18th century and associated with the so-called Age of Enlightenment, which privileged rational thought, science, democracy, liberty, and individual empowerment (for those who could afford it). The Enlightenment philosophy was closely associated with colonialism, and with the notion that “enlightened” Europe was predestined to bring civilization to the “savage” lands and that this was somehow in the best interests of the colonial subjects.
The conversation pieces of the 18th century extolled those values, and the Portrait of Benjamin and Mary Pusey is example of the genre and one of several such works by Wickstead – the portrait of James Henry and family, reproduced above, is another, even more ambitious example. The Pusey portrait, shows Benjamin and Mary in conservation in what is presumably their living space. The Puseys were sugar cane planters and had properties in the Parish of Vere (now part of Clarendon), Westmoreland, and St Andrew and initially lived at Pusey Hall in Vere and later at Cherry Hill in what is now Cherry Gardens. We can get a sense of the Pusey family’s wealth by the recorded fact that the successors at the Pusey Hall Estate in 1835, during the Emancipation period, made a claim for the “loss” of 236 slaves and were compensated 5,018 pounds, 7 shillings and 11 pence, the modern-day equivalent of more than half-a-million pounds. Clearly, the family was deeply embroiled in slavery.
The Pusey portrait depicts Benjamin lecturing his enraptured spouse on the oval object that is placed on chair which is used as a makeshift easel and held by a house slave. Presumably, the object is a coat of arms or emblem, perhaps the family crest. To the right of Mary, a small, whippet-like dog can also be seen. Although the landscape beyond the window or veranda is scarcely defined, it appears that we are not far from the sea, as we can see a blue horizon. The semi-open setting suggests grandeur and wealth, and there are books, papers, and a globe, which suggest that Benjamin Pusey was a man of education and knowledge of the world. A landscape painting is partially visible in the background along with heavy drapery of red fabric and there is a carpet that looks oriental. The Puseys, and the anonymous house slave whose features are barely defined, are all dressed elaborately, with multi-layered formal clothes and powdered wigs that are utterly unsuitable for the tropics, although they would of course have worn their finest for a formal portrait. The scene is lit with bright natural light, which comes in from the left through the doorway, and creates a spotlight effect of which the figure of Benjamin Pusey is the main beneficiary.
Benjamin Pusey is, literally and symbolically, at the center of the painting, almost like a sun around which the other people, dog, and objects in the painting orbit as planets. His wife also receives significant attention but her off-center position and attentive pose place her in a position of secondary importance. The features of the house slave are scarcely defined and everything about the way he has been positioned and represented signals that he is inconsequential. As my students at the Edna Manley College have scathingly noted, he is about as important in the painting as the furniture or the pet dog. The entire painting asserts Benjamin Pusey’s power and importance, as a man in control of his world.
There is, however, also a curious caricatural quality about how Benjamin Pusey is represented. While Mary is more classically idealized, the rotund, pot-bellied, and rosy-faced Pusey is a rather comical, pompous figure, whose features and animated pose make him look like a giant baby. One wonders why Mr Pusey was not represented in a more conventional, flattering light. Perhaps the artist was, advertently or not, alluding to common views about plantation culture at that time, which was often derided in England as demonstrative, crass and aspirational, and typical of the newly rich. There is no such personal caricature in other conversatione portraits by Wickstead.
Technically, the Benjamin and Mary Pusey portrait is not really a great painting, although there are beautiful details. While some of this may be the result of ill-advised past restorations, detail is lacking where it could be expected, for instance in the now-mysterious oval object that appears to be the focus of the conversation. There are also spatial and anatomical discrepancies: Mrs Pusey, for instance, does not quite seem to sit in the same space as her husband and there are similar issues with the positioning of the house slave and chair. Beckford may have been correct in his assessment that Wickstead was a talented but lazy painter.
There are however a few other paintings that suggest that Wickstead that offer us another, more complicated perspective. In 2019, a painting attributed to Wickstead and titled as The Artist Sketching in Jamaica, was sold at Christies for 10,000 pound sterling. In this more competently executed and better-preserved work, Wickstead is depicted while drawing, leaning against a tree. He is accompanied by a female figure, presumably his companion, whose right arm is draped around his shoulders and there is a big dog at their feet. The blissful scene is set in a tropical landscape with a plantation-style cottage and hills in the background. While the posing of the figures is somewhat stiff and contrived, the composition is quite daring and innovative – the artist is, for instance, seen in profile, which is unusual in self-portraits. The work has an intimate, personal quality that is missing from Wickstead’s other surviving works, and its sensitive style and mood suggests early Romanticism rather than the Neoclassical era. There are no assertions of power and hierarchy, only of love and companionship, and perhaps a certain personal vulnerability. Perhaps this was the sort of painting Wickstead really wanted to make if he would have been able to paint for himself rather than his clients, and his perceived laziness may well have been disaffection with his environment.
Another portrait, attributed to “Wickstead’s circle” (if there was such a thing) but more likely a work by Wickstead himself, was in 2018 auctioned at Tennants, for 3,200 Pound Sterling, also suggests that there were other dimensions to Wickstead’s work. The oval painting depicts Mrs Bryan Edwards, believed to be the mother of the planter, politician and historian Bryan Edwards. She is seated next to a table and is offered her mail by black servant, presumably again an enslaved person. Also more technically accomplished than the Pusey portraits, and in better condition, the social dynamics between the two figures depicted are similar: the wealthy, white plantress is seated while the liveried servant is standing and involved in an act of service, bringing her mail. Mrs Edwards is curiously passive and unresponsive to the gesture of her servant and the two figures seem oddly disconnected, spatially and emotionally, to be point of not quite being in the same world. There are however also noteworthy differences. One is that the servant is fully defined, in what is a rare and well-observed portrait of a black person in plantation-era Jamaican art. Instead of being a negligible prop in the composition, his personhood, agency, and identity are acknowledged and, despite the obvious boundaries between the figures, there is an unusual sense of shared humanity which contrasts markedly with the dismissive depiction of the black servant in the Benjamin and Mary Pusey portrait. What motivated this different approach is not known, as it may have been the decision of the artist or the portrait’s patron, but there is obviously a lot we do not know about Wickstead and his work.