Part IV: Conclusion
THERE was once a wooden staircase in the corner of a room that led to the attic of that crumbling great house at Johnson Hill, Camparo Village, Manzanilla.
From this vantage point, one could choose any of seven portals, and see much of the 300-acre cocoa estate developed in the early 1900s by plantation owner George Johnson.
Old man Johnson, his cocoa panyol wife, and three children would, during the course of their lives, revel in the reputation of being aloof, eccentric, unfriendly and capable of delivering a “spirit lash” should anyone cross their path.
Many of the elders of the village can recall a story of the evil-doing that must have taken place in the house behind the hedgerow and, particularly, what must have been conjured up by whoever it was often seen drifting past the attic windows, during the day and by the light of lamp at night.
It turns out that the person in the attic was Behemia Mariquita Johnson and what she was doing was magical.
This woman, considered by many to be mean-spirited, cold and unapproachable, was painting and sketching.
Her collection, over the course of more than 50 years, could have been in the hundreds. She is possibly the most prolific colonial-era artist you never heard about.
Mariquita died in 1983. She was the last of the Johnson clan. In her will, she left no heir. The Johnson estate is still unresolved 30 years later and the passage of time has silenced, or erased, the memory of those who knew her.
Except Elmo Westfield, who befriended this woman in the twilight of her life, saw the real person and remains enamoured to this day.
Westfield, now 81 years old, said he met Mariquita in the early 1970s, when he leased 30 acres of her estate, with the intention of redeveloping the cocoa plantation which, along with much of the country’s agriculture and livestock industry, was one of the first casualties of Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence in 1962.
He recalled that at the great house in Manzanilla “there were a lot of books and paintings, and pencil drawings. Many were of scenery, of the estate as seen from the house, some of birds, the beach, the hills. She was very interested in the history of Manzanilla, since her father owned so much. And the estate back then was a beautiful place. Yes, she had two brothers, but the three worked together at a distance. She was the driving force, the more educated one.
“People said she took after her father and was short-tempered. He was East Indian (while the mother was Venezuelan-born). Mariquita was a beautiful woman and very creative. And she was a mysterious lady. But when you sat down with that woman, you didn’t want to get up for two days,” said Westfield.
In about June of 1983, an ailing Mariquita left her Manzanilla home for her town house in Port of Spain. She died there, at Riverside Road, on August 12. She was in her 80s. There were only a few people to mourn her passing. Her accountant was one. They chose to bury her at Lapeyrouse Cemetery, Port of Spain, far from the mausoleum that she commissioned for her father at Cedar Hill Public Cemetery, located over the hill from the great house at Manzanilla.
That house was then left vacant for years and vandalised. Every piece of furniture, every article worth something was taken. There is no record of her or her work at the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago. There is also nothing at the house now that is evidence of her life, and no image of Mariquita known to exist.
However, there are a few things of Mariquita that the Express found. Like her Vauxhall Velox, the car in which she was taken to and from Manzanilla by her driver Roy Austin, whom she would marry in her later years.
The car, by then rusted and engine beyond repair, was acquired by San Fernando businessman Brij Maharaj, who restored it to pristine condition and returned it to the road. The car, a six-cylinder automatic with a 1949 date of manufacture, starred in the 2001 Merchant Ivory production of Sir VS Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur and more recently in an historical film, Pan! Our Music Odyssey, by Dr Kim Johnson.
Several of Mariquita’s paintings were rescued from the attic of the Manzanilla great house. Three paintings are in the possession of the family of former Express writer/historian Louis B Homer, who died last August.
Homer, who was born in Manzanilla and knew of the Johnsons, was the one who retrieved the artwork. He found other pieces but the bats had destroyed them.
One painting held by the Homer family depicts the samaan-tree-shaded walkway of what is likely the Queen’s Park Savannah. There is one of the British coat of arms painted at a time when the country was a crown colony. A painting shows two men playing a game of draughts. Another is of angels. This was the real Mariquita.
An art enigma
ART historian Geoffrey MacLean, considered an expert in the work of Trinidad’s most famous painter Michel-Jean Cazabon, was asked by the Express whether he knew of Mariquita’s art.
“This lady becomes more and more mysterious!” he said.
MacLean said he spoke with Helen Atteck, who with her sister Sybil (one of Trinidad’s leading 20th-century artists) opened possibly the first art gallery in Trinidad--first in Salvatori Building on Independence Square in Port of Spain and then at Trinidad Hilton, which existed between the mid-50s and late 70s.
Said MacLean: “Helen has never heard of her. She also echoed my thoughts about the second of two paintings, that she appeared to be excellent as an illustrator, or in contemporary terms, graphic artist. The second of the two is very art nouveau in expression and fantasy. The coat of arms is strictly a graphic representation. Her Savannah painting is interesting in terms of its representation — one assumes that it is the Queen’s Park Savannah, and one wonders what period this was, the 1920s would be an appropriate guess.”
CLEVILLE Morris, whose father was the child born of a relationship with George Johnson and his servant, has sought to resolve the dispute over the ownership of the estate, with the help of his siblings Francis Lloyd-Leopold, and Patricia Leopold. The matter remains muddled. However, Morris, who lives outside of San Fernando but often visits the place of his birth, hopes that one day, the estate of his grandfather will return to a Johnson descendant. Morris has a dream of restoring the Great House, and making it into an orphanage. One day, children may run through this house.