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The House Whisperer

rl_winter_2011_page_66_image_0001Unleashing his latest lavishly illustrated coffee table tome, British West Indies Style - Antigua, Jamaica, Barbados and Beyond, the Caribbean’s very own house whisperer – decorative arts’ scholar and West Indian furniture guru, Michael Connors – takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the interiors, architecture, lifestyles and furniture of the English plantocracy era. From the birth of the British Empire to its decline in the mid 1800s, Connors’ encyclopaedic knowledge of the 450-year period of empire expansion on the ‘sugar islands’ is spellbinding. From slender Queen Anne legs discovered in former great houses to the statuesque Regency backsplashes of fine townhouses, he retraces the impact of English colonialism on Caribbean style.

GAME ON

For key European powers, the 1600s were game time in the Caribbean. Wishing to challenge Spanish claims of ownership across the region, England’s King Henry VII issued a grant to Italian explorer John Cabot to commence voyages of discovery into the New World. Wanting to secure its interests in the region, in 1624 England established a mother colony on St Kitts, adding a network of outposts throughout the Leeward Islands down into the southern Windwards. There were high profile settlements in Antigua, Barbados and St Lucia as well as the little known Bequia and Mustique, but the ultimate prize came in 1655 with the annexing of the land of milk and honey, Jamaica.

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The sun seemed never to set on the British Empire as transatlantic trade routes thrived, dealing in sugar, tobacco, tropical hardwoods and the human cargo necessary to fuel supply and demand. According to Connors, however, the emergent English colonial great houses and townhouses erected during this period represented a departure from the established social order. Based on meritocracy rather than nobility, the flamboyant abodes of the newly moneyed sugar barons, plantation elite, merchants and slave traders, were blatant displays of wealth and status.

REIGNING SUGAR

rl_winter_2011_page_68_image_0002As colonial opulence reached increasingly lavish heights, sumptuous mansions were built reminiscent of English country estates. The tempered decadence of great houses like St Kitts’ Montpelier Plantation Estate metamorphosed into “outlandish displays of wealth and amorality” on display at, amongst others, Jamaica’s infamous Rose Hall with its quintessentially English manicured gardens, stone dungeons and intricately carved mahogany woodwork. Records describe planters, “rolling in gold”; homes with ballrooms, luxurious linens, Madeira lace, fine china and glassware. In plantocracy’s heyday, splendid English furniture was flaunted as the epitome of good taste. Adorned in the rl_winter_2011_page_68_image_0002latest fashions from the motherland, décor was expensive and impressive with one home reputedly boasting Damask bedspreads, silkcovered chairs, walnut cabinets and black japanned tea tables. This extravagance lead to Sir William Young’s assertion in his 1807 West India Commonplace Book that, “adventurers in trade or service on the plantation, made the phrase ‘as rich as a West Indian’ almost an eighteenth century proverb.”

IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT…

What they had not anticipated, however, was that, when faced with intense heat, humidity and vermin, English roses are inclined towards wilting. With materials not faring well in the Tropics, estate owners turned to their enslaved workforce to construct furniture better suited to local conditions. Substituting local hardwoods, slaves and their descendents – skilled craftsmen, masons, carvers, turners and joiners – began replicating English styles that soon became less exact and more interpretive. Plentiful supplies of mahogany lead to the ubiquitous hand-carved rl_winter_2011_page_68_image_0003West Indian four-poster bed, elevated to take advantage of airflow and sporting statuesque, ornately embellished posts. Native construction techniques and decorative motifs inspired by the environment – stylised pineapples, sandbox fruit, banana leaves, nutmeg and breadfruit – provided unique signatures and distinctive island expression. Individual islands employed different materials, like the lighter grained courbaril and West Indian cypress in the English Windward Islands. There even emerged bespoke designs like the Bajan cellaret table or the Jamaican campeche chair. With one eye on the fashion-forward motherland and the other intent on honing vernacular styles inspired by more enduring designs, anomalies inevitably emerged: scalloped-edged tilt top tea tables with rope-twist turnings became the order of the day. Add to this not only the fact that some islands changed hands numerous times in the battle for European supremacy, but the influence of English designers like Thomas Chippendale and master cabinetmaker Ralph Turnbull, and there can be little surprise at the multifaceted nature of English island style.

Crl_winter_2011_page_69_image_0001onnors’ revelatory narrative and stunning pictographic meanderings are golden keys, unlocking the doors of over fifty private homes to uncover the extent of European hegemony in trade and empire at a time when Britannia strived to rule the Caribbean waves. An unlikely historical page-turner, British West Indies Style traces the political shenanigans, wild buccaneering and battles on the high seas that typified this period of empire expansion. Whispering his way into the inner sanctum of British colonialism, Connors exposes the intriguing backstory behind this refined world, making this masterwork the definitive guide for voyages of discovery in the Caribbean.

To enter to win Dr. Michael Connors new book British West Indies Style, click here.

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