By: Edward M. Gomez
Born in Jamaica in 1794 into a well-to-do Sephardic-Jewish merchant family, Belisario spent part of his life in England and died in London in 1849. His major work is Sketches of Character, In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population, in the Island of Jamaica, a series of lithographs of Jamaican slaves dressed up for a popular music-and-dance celebration, which the artist, who was based in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, issued to subscribers in 1837 and 1838. Those memorable images, with accompanying descriptive texts composed by Belisario himself, offer a cultural anthropologist’s treasure trove of information about one of the most colorful folk customs to have emerged in colonial Jamaica.
Belisario’s reputation got a boost in 2007 from the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. As part of the commemorations, Yale University’s Center for British Art presented the exhibition Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds. It featured Belisario’s Sketchesprints, artifacts from the slavery era and an accompanying catalogue in which the famous prints were reproduced from the complete set of three parts, in their original bindings, that are housed in the Yale museum’s Paul Mellon Collection.
Very few other complete or incomplete sets of Sketches are known to exist. In Jamaica, Valerie Facey, the founder and director of The Mill Press, a Kingston-based company that focuses on works about Jamaican art and culture, and her husband, Maurice Facey, a well-known Jamaican businessman, own one complete set, whose pages are separated from their original bindings. The Faceys are one of the best-known families in the Jamaican business world, and some of their ancestors were Jewish. To some degree, this aspect of Valerie’s own family’s history has spurred her longstanding interest in the story of the Belisarios of Jamaica. In Kingston, the University of the West Indies owns another complete, bound set of Sketches(including two sets of part two), as does the National Library of Jamaica, whose set is unbound.
Late last year The Mill Press issued Belisario: Sketches of Character, a new, exhaustively researched and lavishly illustrated book written by biographer Jackie Ranston and printed in Verona, Italy, by the famed Stamperia Valdonega. Belisario is the most ambitious project this small press has undertaken to date. At the heart of the book is the story of the artist’s creation of his portraits. To provide a sense of the historical and cultural contexts in which Belisario’s Sketches emerged, the British-born Ranston, who has lived and worked in Jamaica since 1970, goes back to the Inquisition, which the Catholic Church established in Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, and to the migratory movements of branches of the Jewish Lindo and Belisario families that survived it. Their descendants’ paths crossed two centuries later at a London synagogue that became the spiritual home of the British capital’s small community of “Mosaic” people, as Jews were sometimes referred to at the time.
Decades later, the paths of certain members of the Lindo and Belisario families crossed again¾in Jamaica. They were among the countless Jewish families in the Caribbean who traced their roots back to England, Spain, Portugal or other countries and who distinguished themselves for generations as merchants and financiers. Reminders of the contributions Jews have made to the societies and institutions of the Caribbean islands can be found in the graveyards and national archives of many of the region’s small, independent, post-colonial countries. As for Jamaica, in the past some of the island’s most prominent Jewish businessmen were deeply involved in its notorious slave trade, right up until Jamaica freed its slaves in 1838. It was against this commercial and social backdrop that the Belisario’s life unfolded.
His father, Abraham Mendes Belisario, arrived in Kingston from London in 1786, at the age of 18, and went to work for Alexandre (Elisha) Lindo, a slave trader and merchant whose daughter, Esther, he later married. Ranston writes that “Lindo’s thriving port business included his role as a prominent prize agent, selling off enemy vessels and their cargoes that had been caught off Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico and along the Spanish Main.” As Lindo’s eventual business partner, Abraham became prosperous, too. But in 1803, after becoming involved with his father-in-law in a disastrous loan to France of half a million British pounds to help provision French forces fighting rebels in St. Domingue—the French colony that would become the independent nation of Haiti—Abraham returned with his family to London. Lindo, ruined, sailed back on the same ship. For such businessmen, who had been deeply involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which transported human cargo from the coast of West Africa to European colonies in the Americas, the final economic crunch came, Ranston points out, in 1807. In that year, Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act “made it illegal for British ships to be involved in the trade.”
Even before this time, Belisario had set his sights on becoming an artist, despite his family’s expectations that he assume a role in its enterprises. He gave up his job as a London stockbroker and studied with watercolorist Robert Hills and showed his own work with the Society of Painters in Oil and Watercolours. He also painted landscapes in oil and in 1831 exhibited a watercolor portrait (Lady in Black) at the Royal Academy of Arts. Belisario’s lady was Ellen Terry, one of the most-admired young actresses of her time. However, while his artistic career progressed, Belisario suffered from respiratory ailments, so he returned to Jamaica in 1834 in search of a warm, soothing climate.
There he set up a studio on the Parade, the main plaza in downtown Kingston. He had been away from the island of his birth for 31 years. As Belisario became established, wealthy landowners commissioned him to paint portraits of their family members or pictures of their estates; the relatively small number of the artist’s paintings that are known to exist today are mostly in private collections in Jamaica or in the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston.
When Belisario arrived back in Jamaica, he found a small art scene made up of only a few itinerant foreign artists. Notable among them was the Frenchman Adolphe Duperly, who became known for his hand-colored lithographic prints of typical Jamaican scenes. Belisario’s keen eye for detail and Duperly’s printmaking skill would come together in the production of the Jewish-Jamaican artist’s ambitious but, ultimately, incompletely realized Sketches series documenting a masquerade festival known as Jonkonnu.
African in origin, Jonkonnu was, Ranston explains, “a fantastic fusion of African and European traditions that had its origins in the early days of slavery, when the Christmas and Easter holidays … provided the only real recreational opportunities for the enslaved.” For a few days at Jonkonnu time, plantation owners allowed their slaves to bang drums, make music and celebrate. Since slaves and slave-owners alike joined in the festivities wearing costumes and masks representing both mythical and real-life figures, Jonkonnu became a great, if temporary, leveler of the era’s strictly hierarchical society. (The word Jonkonnu—sometimes rendered “John Canoe”—might be derived from the name of an 18th-century West African chieftain. The festival occurs in other parts of the Caribbean and in slavery days was practiced in North Carolina.)
Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Jonkonnu developed its own stock characters, such as the Queen (or “Ma’am”) of the singing and dancing Set Girls and Jack-in-the-Green, a male figure covered with a palm-frond shroud. In Belisario’s emblematic images, the Queen appears in a brightly patterned hoop skirt, puff sleeves and a broad lace collar, along with a wide-brimmed hat topped by a thicket of fluffy white plumes. In Belisario’s own words, she was the “conductress of a lively and graceful band of female dancers” armed with a “cow-skin whip” to keep her charges in line. At Jonkonnu time they would “sally forth in the morning,” accompanied by a band, to “parade the town” until nighttime. Belisario also depicted Jaw-Bone, or House John-Canoe, a character who wore a mask and a long-haired wig, a military-looking jacket and a headdress shaped like a house or houseboat. That unusual headgear had roots in west-central African societies and symbolized a man’s wealth, which was measured by how many people lived in his home.
In Belisario, Ranston notes that the mask-wearing and cross-dressing associated with Jonkonnu would have reminded the artist “of the Jewish Purim celebration that plays with the themes of identity,” and that, in the late 18th century in London, after those festivities had become too boisterous, Jewish elders decreed to their community that in the future, “no person of our nation of either sex or of any age shall, on Purim, or at any other time of the year, appear in the streets in masquerade or disguised in the dress of the other sex.”
In documenting Jonkonnu characters for posterity, Belisario took a turn away from the landscapes and society portraits for which he had become known. With hisSketches, he also helped validate a form of cultural expression that had become an integral part of Jamaica’s multiracial and already multicultural society. Although he had intended to produce a dozen separate installments (known as parts or numbers) of the Sketches, each containing several images, because he could not find capable assistants to help him hand-color each print he was forced to cease production of the series after issuing only three numbers. They contained a total of 12 images. In April 1839 Belisario informed subscribers who had paid to receive forthcomingSketches installments that he had fallen ill from overexertion in hand-coloring the prints. Shortly thereafter, Belisario sailed back to England. In London he resided with his sisters until his death from tuberculosis, that “dread disease,” as Charles Dickens described it, by means of which “day by day and grain by grain, the mortal part withers away.”
Despite Ranston’s exhaustive research, her subject remains something of an enigma. “Of Belisario,” she writes, relevant documents offer “no mention of a wife, mistress or children¾legitimate or otherwise. All that has emerged of his personal life is that he was a vestryman at the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ synagogue in Kingston from 1838 until he left” Jamaica for good the following year.
Unfortunately, despite the considerable resources that supported Yale’s presentation, some of its researchers got basic facts about Belisario’s life wrong. For example, confusing him with his Jamaica-based cousin who shared the same name, they claimed the artist had owned slaves. In fact, as Ranston has established, the painter-printmaker was never a slave owner, despite his family’s close ties to the notorious business.
Today, Jamaica counts only a few hundred Jews among a total population of nearly three million inhabitants. That they contributed significantly to the development of the country’s commercial infrastructure is no secret. Neither is the fact that, in Jamaica, as throughout the Caribbean, successive waves of immigrants from different countries and cultures¾including Indians, Chinese, Lebanese and Jews from Europe and beyond¾have routinely intermingled, creating a pageant of complexions and often closely intertwined family trees.
Take this fact, for example: Belisario’s Jamaican-born mother, Esther Lindo, was the great-great aunt of Blanche Lindo Blackwell, the Sephardic-Jewish mother of Chris Blackwell, the legendary record producer who catapulted reggae star Bob Marley to international fame in the 1970s. Never mind that Belisario might still be known only to a handful of art-history experts and collectors. Ranston notes, “Blanche Lindo Blackwell is Belisario’s cousin, twice removed, and very proud of the fact.” It is such personal connections to the little-known artist, plus the sense of wonder at the sophistication and quality of his achievement each new discoverer of his Sketchesseems to feel, that will ensure this mysterious artist a lasting place in the art history of his time.