Michel-Jean Cazabon and Belmont TrustThursday, July 18th, 2013 Categories: Art History, Features, Updates
Michel-Jean Cazabon was born on 20 September 1813 on Corinth Estate near San Fernando, Trinidad’s second largest town. The Cazabons were part of the free coloured, free black community from Martinique who settled in Trinidad after the Spanish Cedula of Population in 1783.
At the age of twelve he went to St. Edmund’s College in Ware, England, returning to Trinidad when he was seventeen. In the mid-1830s, Cazabon went to Paris to study art, where he was a student of Paul Delaroche, Michel-Martin Drolling, Jean-Antoine Theodore Gudin and Antoine Leon Morel-Fatio. The influences of these artists can be seen in Cazabon’s extensive œuvre: river scenes, landscapes, portraits and seascapes. His work was exhibited at the Salon du Louvre in 1839 and every year from 1843 to 1947.
In 1848 he returned to Trinidad where he advertised himself as a “Landscape Painter”, a reflection of his affinity to the French Landscape school. Cazabon and Trinidad’s 11th British Governor, the Third Lord Harris , who had arrived in Trinidad in 1845, had much in common: an English education, fluent in both English and French, both were familiar with the south of France – Lord Harris was sent to the south of France as a young man for health reasons – and a love of the landscape.
The Third Lord Harris, George Francis Robert, was, in my opinion, the most progressive and compassionate of Trinidad’s Governors. Following the abolition of slavery and the introduction of indentured labour from India, Harris was caught between the pressures of the planters and the importation of labour. Twice, in 1849 and 1851, he halted immigration from India, reopening in 1852 with safeguards including the presence of a Protector of Immigrants and free passages for the wives of immigrants and families. He also was responsible for establishing an education “on secular lines” out of which Queens Royal College was established. In 1852, he established a public library in Port of Spain and the first pipe born water system in Port of Spain from reservoirs in Maraval. A fountain and trough for travelers and their horses was built on the Old St. Joseph Road, which became known as the “Governor’s Spoon” and survives to this day.
Lord Harris married a Trinidadian, Sarah Cummins, in 1849. Their first child, a son, the 4th Lord Harris, was born in 1851 and a daughter in 1853. Sarah died in childbirth and is interred in the Lapeyrouse Cemetery.
Lord Harris commissioned the artist to prepare a book of lithographs of scenes in Trinidad and in 1851 “View of Trinidad” was published. In addition, Lord Harris commissioned several watercolours and oil paintings of Trinidadian scenery, not only of the landscape and architectural heritage, but also of scenes dear to the Governor – the hunting lodge on Mount Tamana and later his wedding to Trinidadian Sarah Cummins, including the wedding party’s arrival at the holiday residence on Caledonia, one of the Five Islands of the north-west peninsular of Trinidad.
It is interesting to observe the French Landscape Movement, developed as a reaction to the industrialization of Europe with a return to the unspoiled landscape. Today Cazabon’s scenes of Trinidad give us an important understanding, in retrospect, of Trinidad as it was before the heavy industrialization of the twentieth and twenty-first century – clean, natural and unspoiled. Many of the scenes are still familiar to us, creating a tremendous sense of nostalgia. My favourite would be the sunset of the Queen’s Savannah of a man and little boy at sunset flying a kite, something we still see nearly 170 years after. His recording of the people show an exoticism and elegance of Trinidad’s ethnic mix.
After the publication of my first book on Cazabon in 1986, the relationship between the artist and Lord Harris continued to fascinate me. A loyal patron, I felt that the Governor would not have left the colony without taking with him mementos in the form of paintings, which would provide an important record of Trinidad’s history. Initial enquiries proved fruitless – there are several Lords with Harris as a prominent surname in Britain. Eventually we traced the family to Belmont House near Faversham in Kent.
In 1988 I visited Belmont House for the first time. The house was under the care of the butler, Robert Hacking, who, when asked about the possibility of paintings by Cazabon, directed me to a folio in the library and several paintings in the attic. The folio contained about 38 of the most important references to nineteenth century Trinidad in existence. The oil paintings in the attic also turned out to be fine and important examples of the artist’s work.
In 1991 I returned to Belmont House to view the cleaned and restored watercolours and paintings, now beautifully framed, and was also honoured to meet George Robert John, the 6th Lord Harris. In discussing the collection and the possibility of it being returned to Trinidad, Lord Harris commented: “Geoffrey, I think the collection belongs in Trinidad”. Although I do not think that the collection should remain permanently in Trinidad – there are very few places, if any, that are properly secure or environmentally suitable – I would like the collection to be able to be seen by Trinidad and Tobago’s general public.
On 6th July 2013, the High Commissioner of the Trinidad and Tobago High Commission in the United Kingdom, His Excellency Garvin Nicholas, together with the Belmont Trust under its Chairman, Lord Colgrain, organized a celebration for the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Michel-Jean Cazabon at Belmont House. The event was a tremendous success, once more underlining the importance of the artist’s work in the context of Trinidad and Tobago’s heritage. We are hoping to produce by September this year, a second edition of “Cazabon, The Harris Collection” first published in 1999 and now out of print.
All images courtesy of MacLean Publishing Limited, Belmont Trust, Geoffrey MacLean and the Trinidad and Tobago High Commission, London.