LAA: What is your new book about?
JR: It's about the pictures drawn by an English-born artist, Richard Bridgens, who spent 20 years in Trinidad, including the last few years before Emancipation; the people who may have featured in those images, and who lived and worked on his estate in Arouca; and the conditions under which they lived.
This isn't your first biography; you're also the author of bios of fashion designer Meiling and jeweller Barbara Jardine. I'm sure there are massive differences between writing on the living and writing on the dead; which do you prefer? Or, if you wish, what are the upside and the downside of writing about a dead subject?
This is more than a biography, but the biographical sections were in some ways the most difficult. Although Bridgens mixed with some of the best architects, artists and writers of his time–people in Lord Byron's circle, for instance–he wasn't considered their social equal, so he barely features in what's written about them. And his personal papers were destroyed in a fire in Port-of-Spain, so there are frustrating gaps in the story, though I still found out things no one else has known about him till now. Obviously with a living subject, you can just ask what they've done and why, etc.
But writing about living people has its own complications. For instance, an intuitive artist may give you one account of their work–but when you look at it, you see something else. It can feel quite impertinent to say an artist's interpretation of his or her own work is inaccurate.
Bridgens' roles (both in his official capacity and his unofficial capacity as an artist) have been significant. Can you speak to the two faces of his legacy?
Bridgens became hugely influential in the UK: he published a book of furniture patterns used by furniture-makers for the rest of the 19th century. He worked on the grand houses of people like the celebrity novelist Sir Walter Scott; the industrialist James Watt, son of the great engineer; and the remarkable prefabricated house shipped to St Helena for Napoleon when he was exiled after Waterloo.
He was the Superintendent of Public Works here: the bottom had dropped out of the sugar economy and he needed the income–he and his wife Maria had six children. So inter alia he designed the Red House, although his version wasn't finished in his lifetime, because the Treasury ran out of cash.He also published a book of drawings, West India Scenery, which focuses on sugar cultivation and the enslaved people on the estates.
The few art historians who mention his pictures have dismissed them as racist caricature, but they're constantly used nowadays in books, films and exhibitions on Caribbean and even American slavery–though rarely credited to Bridgens.
I think they're criticised partly because he wasn't very good at drawing people (including Europeans). But they're hugely useful for what they show about the conditions of slavery. Despite being a slaveholder himself, he was enough of an artist and had enough integrity to try to draw what he saw without whitewashing it.
What was the most surprising aspect of the work you undertook to complete this book? What was the most disturbing?
The most surprising thing was how much it's possible to find out about individual enslaved people through official records such as the register of slaves and the reports of the Protector of Slaves: their names, ages, height, ethnic origin, occupations, families can be traced over the years.
There's also ample information about how they were treated in the Protector's reports. They make clear how enslaved people resisted in all sorts of ways, despite knowing the most vicious punishments would follow.
Those reports were the most disturbing thing–like Bridgens's drawings of people wearing iron collars, or the masks used as punishment for dirt-eating (that could cause physical illness or death and was probably a psychological reaction to enslavement, but the planters just treated it as bad behavior).
The Protector's reports and those of the UK Anti-Slavery Society disprove the notion that slavery in Trinidad was less bad than elsewhere in the region.
This research has taken a long time. How long exactly, involving what hoops of fire through which you had to jump, and where–emotionally, physically, geographically–did it take you?
It's been about six years–too long, but I ran into some brick walls in finding information about Bridgens. Also, I realised it needed to be about the people of the St Clair estate and slavery in Trinidad too, because there aren't many detailed accounts of what it was like. So I needed to know everything about the 19th century!
Unfortunately, when I realised that, I'd just agreed to be editor in chief of the T&T Guardian, which didn't leave much time for other things.
Then the UK national archives increased the price of copies of records, so the remaining Protector's reports would have cost �13,000 instead of the previous �40. They said it would be cheaper to come and copy them myself. That was a major setback, but then I had the huge good luck to get a small research grant. In the archives in London and Birmingham, I saw letters and drawings by Bridgens, and the original, handwritten Protector's reports–which include the "Xs" signed by enslaved witnesses who couldn't write. That was very moving, though reading the reports in general is very distressing.
As well as the site that was once the St Clair estate and other local sites linked to Bridgens, I also got to visit Aston Hall, the Jacobean home in Birmingham brilliantly restored by Bridgens and its owner.
Now that the book is done and about to be officially launched, what's next for you?
There are other aspects of and characters in local history I'd like to write about, including a true, amazing story involving a very famous writer–but which I want to write as fiction.
I'm also working on a short memoir of my grandfather Arthur Raymond. He came from the East Dry River and had a difficult personal life–and he was also the journalist who wrote the editorial that led to the Privy Council's Ambard judgement, a famous victory for press freedom.