A picture paints a thousand words, but for 19th century artist, Michel Jean Cazabon, although his paintings are numerous, there is little to tell about the life of one of Trinidad and Tobago's most celebrated artists. Over 150 years following Cazabon's passing, it would be difficult to even conjure up images of an era in which the artist reigned, that is, were it not for the legendary renderings of Trinidad and it's people which he left as his legacy.
Celebrated T&T author Lawrence Scott has gone even further and filled in the blanks through his latest book, Light Falling on Bamboo. Scott's book, a fictional account of Cazabon's life, is a revealing book about the virtual existence of a celebrated artist, whose life was as colourful as his famous paintings.
A lot has been said about Cazabon by his biographer, Geoffery MacLean, through his works in An Illustrated Biography of Trinidad's Nineteenth Century Painter, Michel Jean Cazabon, however, according to Scott, it is a "skeleton biography" and he found himself hungry for more. Scott's hunger drove him into a tail spin of research into Cazabon's life to produce a story which the author describes as no easy feat to accomplish.
"What inspired me were Cazabon's paintings. We have a lot of his paintings but little information about the artist. Where he was born, where he grew up and where he went to school has been established by the art critic and historian Geoffery MacLean in the illustrated biography, which made him very important to my research but he provided me with a type of skeleton biography of Cazabon. We don't know anything about the man. There are no writings, no letters and no journals but there are a lot of paintings," Scott said.
Scott said Cabazon's paintings have always intrigued him. "Cazabon's paintings are very important historically because it's a historical view of Trinidad and what the Caribbean looked like in the 19th century. Some of his paintings I am very fond of. There are a lot of paintings. There is also a big difference in quality among his paintings; there are much better paintings than others. How those paintings came down to us is unknown; they were dispersed, they were bought, they were left and some were lost. There were a mixture of styles and there were many that were unfinished," Scott said.
One such painting is on the cover of the MacLean biography. It depicts a young woman with a blue parasol, on her head is a a madras headtie. She wears white petticoats, beneath a pink skirt and a blue pinafore. In the book we meet her on page 124 as Augusta, the daughter of the mistress of Hardin Burnley. In real life and in Scott's book, Burnley was an estate owner who commissioned many works from Cazabon.
Here is an example of what we mean found in this excerpt:
....He could not tear his attention from her eyes, her slender waist, her petite feet in their pointed black shoes, her white stockings....His eyes travelled over her bare shoulders and arms, shown off to absolute effect by her off-the-shoulder broderie anglaise bodice which cradeled her small bosoms, and allowed the sheen of her brown skin to shine magnificently. She was a mulatto....she had twirled away from the easel, allowing the white petticoats beneath her pink skirt with the blue pinafore to gush...he had forgotten what the precise message the particular knot of her Madras headtie was meant to convey to possible suitors.....
The book is really a fascinating read.
Scott, whose book was launched locally on November 21 at NALIS, St Vincent Street, Port of Spain, said research was a major challenge. "I have had to imagine what life was for Cabazon. Some of the characters carry the names of historical characters like the governor and a few other people like the governor's secretary who was Cabazon's student. I have tried to persuade the reader to believe in the truth of the 19th century and how somebody like Cabazon might have been like," Scott explained.
He added, "The biggest challenge was to understand and read the paintings to get a glimpse of the artist's thoughts. I am not an artist or an art historian so I had to learn that. I talked to a lot of artists. The challenge was to kind of marshal all this together—the historical research as well as the art research. In order to tell a story I had to cut myself away from the research because I didn't want the book reading like a history book or an art book. I had to tell a story with interactive characters, so that was the challenge. I had to push the research aside and write my story," Scott said.
Scott always longed to produce works on Cazabon. His opportunity came through the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) research programme in which he had to research Hidden Cultures of French Creole. "I am French Creole on my mother's side so I know a lot about that world. So I thought this is my chance to explore Cazabon because he is French Creole himself, and so that became the area of my research," Scott said. "So I was at the UTT for three years researching and looking at paintings. I had to go out to find people who were like him and the things people were experiencing during his time," Scott added.
Light Falling on Bamboo was successfully launched in the United Kingdon in September to wide critical and acclaim. Scott is a prize-winning author of the novels, Witchbroom, Aelred's Sin and Night Calypso and his latest novel, Light Falling on Bamboo. Scott, who resides in England, is in Trinidad for a series of speaking engagements, readings and discussions on his latest novel. Scott is to be the honoured guest at a number of venues including Naparima College on Tuesday from 6 p.m., where the theme is Cazabon's close relationship with South Trinidad—Cazabon's home was at Corinth Estate and the artist painted extensively scenes of the area.
Scott's next event is at the UWI Centre for Language Learning, St Augustine on Wednesday at 6 p.m., where he will be joined by Professor Bridget Brereton and Dr Geraldine Skeete, in conversation on the historical and literary dimensions of the work. On Thursday from 7 p.m., the focus is on the writer, the artist and his art at Medulla Gallery, Fitt Street, Woodbrook. At all venues Scott will sign copies of his books after the reading and discussion sessions. These events are free to the public.