Author Lawrence Scott
Published: 8 November, 2012
by ANDREW JOHNSON
HE cuts a shadowy figure, the 19th-century Trinidadian artist Michel-Jean Cazabon. There are few records for him, his paintings are undated, there are no portraits. And yet, he is quite a historical figure. If he was European, we’d know chapter and verse about him.
Cazabon, a mixed race “free-coloured”, trained in Europe and when he returned to Trinidad, 10 years after emancipation, became the island’s first professional artist.
It was then a British possession and the governor was Cazabon’s main patron. So the artist walked the thin wire between turning out formal portraits and images of cricket matches while trying to introduce a bit of subversiveness into his work.
It’s easy to see why the author Lawrence Scott – who grew up a literal stone’s throw away from the sugar plantation where Cazabon lived – should have been drawn to “fill out his life” for his latest critically acclaimed novel, Light Falling on Bamboo.
In it he imagines Cazabon’s life from when he returned to Trinidad in 1848 – using paintings as clues to his invisible life.
“The idea for the book had been in my mind for a while,” Scott says. “I always liked to look at the paintings. You don’t find many old, old things in Trinidad. The sense of history in this man and what he’s done was a big thing for me. It gave me an interesting way to go back to investigate the 19th century, not in the obvious ways, the big ways of slavery for example, but to do it via a watercolourist.
“Because his life was erased, he needed to be given a life. And that’s linked to giving voice to a place, to a people, who have been erased, marginalised, out on the periphery.”
We sit in Scott’s kitchen in his home in Crouch Hill where he has lived since the 1970s, going through books of Cazabon’s work.
The “official” work idealises the island, leaving out the poverty. Yet read between the lines, says Scott, and his subversiveness come to the fore.
He paints black women but wearing European clothes, for example, and black families sitting in the grounds of the governor’s mansion – a clear declaration of their equality, says Scott.
There is one striking image – View of Port of Spain from Laventille Hill – with the British colony in the centre. But Cazabon pulls the viewers attention away to the bottom right corner where two small figures are standing among tropical undergrowth. One is white, wearing a top hat and tails, the other is black and pointing with a stick. Whoever points in a painting, says Scott, is the one with the power.
“There so much drama and subtle questioning,” he said. “I think he is ambivalent and caught in all sorts of contradictions. As a mixed race free-coloured person he is caught between white Creoles, white English, black people, Indians.”
It is easy to see the parallels between Cazabon and Scott’s life. Both are artists from Trinidad who spent a lot of time in Europe but also find they are caught between worlds on their home island.
“He was a mixed race Creole. I’m a French Creole on my mother’s side. He comes to England at 13. I come at 19. He goes to Paris to become a painter, I stay here to become a writer. Emotionally there was an affinity.”
Scott used to teach at City and Islington Sixth Form College and started writing with real intent when he was 40 – he’s now 69 – finally quitting teaching in 2006.
He came to England aged 19, to be a Benedictine monk and found his voice as a writer when he returned to Trinidad 21 years later after his father died, just a few years after independence.
“I discovered what I wanted to write about in Trinidad,” he says. “I never felt confident about writing about England. My second novel is set in England, but in a very special environment, – a Benedictine monastery, a closed world.
I never felt confident about writing about English society. But then I also had left Trinidad behind so it was the rediscovering it that brought me back into contact with what I wanted to write about.
“It was a big challenge to go back to Trinidad,” he adds.
“I re-entered a wholly different society, but as a white person. When I grew up in the 30s and 40s there were white people in enclaves.
“My primary school wasn’t very mixed, my secondary school less so. Socially white and black people didn’t mix, or come to your home.
“All that had changed by the time I got back in 1969. In 1970 the black power movement came to Trinidad. That changed a lot of things. There were huge developments from 1970 onwards to do with race and class. But I think these things are happening within the Cazabon paintings.”
Light Falling on Bamboo picks up on Cazabon’s life when he returns to Trinidad to care for his dying mother in 1848. It focuses on his “sensual life” – his elevation into white society and the barriers and formalities that can obstruct affection.
“I concentrated on the sensual relationships,” Scott says. “Anecdotally we’re told he had illegitimate children, so that gave me an opening. But you can see how he painted the women, they’re beautiful. He’s obviously a sensualist in the way he paints his landscapes. He was on Trinidad for three years without his wife. You can imagine – unless he was a saint.
“There’s another feeling of the responsibilities around that in the book. There are ambivalences such as with the English woman he’s fallen in love with.
“He dare not touch her because he knew that would be a disaster for him, professionally.”
• Light Falling on Bamboo. By Lawrence Scott.Tindal Street Press £12.99.