Bermuda has long been a favorite among international artists and sculptors. Much of this island-inspired artwork can be viewed at the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art, where a permanent collection of works from 19th-century painters including Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keefe and E. Ambrose Webster have hung since its opening in 2009.
But to get a full understanding of Bermuda’s artistic past, its roots must be traced to colonial days, when most works were portraits painted by itinerant artists for the local gentry. Most of these were by the English-born Joseph Blackburn, whose brief visit to Bermuda in the mid-1700s led to requests by local landowners to have their images recreated on canvas. Many of these portraits can be found today in the Tucker House in St. George. A handful of portraits from the same period were done by the American-born artist John Green. Also prized are a series of paintings from the mid–19th century depicting sailing ships; they’re signed “Edward James,” but the artist’s real identity remains unknown.
During the 19th century, the traditions of the English landscape painters, particularly the Romantics, came into vogue in Bermuda. Constable, with his lush and evocative landscapes, became the model for many. Other than a few amateur artists however, whose works showed great vitality but little sense of perspective, most of Bermuda’s landscape paintings were executed by British military officers and their wives. Their body of work includes a blend of true-to-life landscapes with an occasional stylized rendering of the picturesque or Romantic tradition then in vogue in England. Among the most famous of the uniformed artists was Lt. E. G. Hallewell, a member of the Royal Engineers, whose illustrations of the island’s topography were used for planning certain naval installations.
Another celebrated landscapist was Thomas Driver, who arrived as a member of the Royal Engineers in 1814 and remained on the island until 1836. Trained to reproduce detailed landscape observations as a means of assisting military and naval strategists, he later modified his style to become more elegant and evocative. He soon abandoned the military and became a full-time painter of Bermuda scenes. Because of Driver’s attention to detail, his works are frequently reproduced by scholars and art historians who hope to recapture the aesthetic and architectural elements of the island’s earliest buildings.
Later in the 19th century, other artists depicted the flora of Bermuda. Lady Lefroy, whose husband was governor of the island between 1871 and 1877, painted the trees, shrubs, fish, flowers, and animals of the island in much detail. Later, at scattered intervals during their careers, such internationally known artists as Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, George Ault, and French-born Impressionist and cubist Albert Gleizes all painted Bermudian scenes.
Among prominent Bermuda-born artists was Alfred Birdsey, who died in 1996. His watercolors represented some of the most elegiac visual odes to Bermuda ever produced. Birdsey’s paintings, as well as those of other artists mentioned above, are on display in galleries around the island.
Today, Bermuda has more artists painting and creating than at any point in its history. Local favorites include Eric Amos, whose illustrations of Bermuda’s wild birds are sought by collectors all over the world; Captain Stephen J. Card, who has developed an international reputation by specializing in marine art; Vivienne Gardner, known not just for her paintings but also for her sculpture, stained glass, and mosaics; Christine Phillips-Watlington, who has achieved an international reputation for her botanical paintings; and Graham Foster, a prolific modernist best known for his 1,000-square-foot mural The Hall of History, depicting 500 years of Bermuda’s past (the work took him 3 years to complete and was officially opened at the Commissioner’s House in the Royal Naval Dockyard by Her Majesty the Queen in 2009). In addition to its painters, Bermuda also boasts several noted sculptors, including Chelsey Trott, who produces cedar-wood carvings, and Desmond Hale Fountain, who creates works in bronze found in hotels and private homes alike. Fountain’s life-size statues often show children in the act of reading or snoozing in the shade.
Today, Bermuda’s unique style is best represented by its architecture: primarily, those little pink cottages that grace postcards. The architecture of the island—a mélange of idiosyncratic building techniques dictated by climate and the types of building materials available—is the island’s only truly indigenous art form.
Bermuda’s early settlers quickly recognized the virtues of the island’s most visible building material, coral stone. A conglomerate of primeval sand packed with crushed bits of coral and shells, this stone has been quarried for generations on Bermuda. Cut into oblong building blocks, it is strong yet porous. However, it would be unusable in any area where the climate has cycles of freezing and thawing, because it would crack. Mortared together with imported cement, the blocks provide solid and durable foundations and walls.
Bermuda’s colonial architects ingeniously found a way to deal with a serious problem on the island: the lack of an abundant supply of fresh water. During the construction of a house or any other sort of building, workers excavated a water tank, or cistern, first. The cistern was created either as a separate underground cavity away from the house or as a foundation for the building. These cisterns served to collect rainwater funneled from rooftops via specially designed channels and gutters. The design of these roof-to-cellar water conduits led to the development of what is Bermuda’s most distinct architectural feature: the gleaming rooftops of its houses. Gently sloping, and invariably painted a dazzling white, they are constructed of quarried limestone slabs sawed into “slates” about an inch thick and between 77 and 116 sq. cm (12–18 sq. in.). Roofs are installed over a framework of cedar-wood beams (or, more recently, pitch pine or pressure-treated wood beams), which are interconnected with a series of cedar laths. The slates are joined with cement-based mortar in overlapping rows, then covered with a cement wash and one or several coats of whitewash or synthetic paint. This process corrects the porosity of the coral limestone slates, rendering them watertight. The result is a layered effect, since each panel of limestone appears in high relief atop its neighbor. The angular, step-shaped geometry of Bermudian roofs has inspired watercolorists and painters to emphasize the rhythmically graceful shadows that trace the path of the sun across the rooflines.
Unlike those in the Caribbean, Bermudian houses are designed without amply proportioned hanging eaves. Large eaves may be desirable because of the shade they afford, but smaller ones have proved to be more structurally sound during tropical storms. The interiors of Bermudian houses are usually graced with large windows and doors and in older buildings, floors and moldings crafted from copper-colored planks of the almost-extinct Bermuda cedar. Also common is a feature found in colonial buildings in the Caribbean and other western Atlantic islands as well: tray ceilings, so named because of their resemblance to an inverted serving tray. This shape allows ceilings to follow the lines of the inside roof construction to create what would otherwise be unused space. The effect of these ceilings, whether sheathed in plaster or planking, gives Bermudian interiors unusual height and airiness.
Despite the distinctively individualistic nature of Bermuda’s architecture, decor remains faithfully British, and somewhat more formal than you might expect. Interior designs seem to be a felicitous cross between what you’d find in a New England seaside cottage and how a nautically minded society hostess would accent her drawing room in London. Bermuda homes usually have lots of Chippendale or Queen Anne furniture (sometimes authentic, sometimes reproduction). Whenever possible, decorators love to include any piece of antique furniture crafted from Bermuda cedar. Combine these features with the open windows, gentle climate, and carefully tended gardens of the fertile, mid-Atlantic setting, and the result is some very charming and soothing interiors.
No discussion of Bermudian architecture should neglect to mention a garden feature that many visitors consider unique to Bermuda: the moongate. A rounded span of coral blocks arranged in a circular arch, the moongate was first introduced to Bermuda around 1860, following a local sea captain’s trip to China. The structures didn’t become prevalent until the 1920s, when the landscape architect of English aristocrat the Duke of Westminster incorporated one into the now defunct Bermudiana Hotel after finding similar inspiration from such gates in China and Japan.
If you’re searching for a spot to snap a memorable photograph, look no further than Bermuda’s limestone moongates. Said to give newlyweds enduring happiness if they pass through the stone archway hand-in-hand, these semi-circle openings first began popping up in Bermuda around 1860, following a local sea captain’s trip to a Chinese garden. By the 1920s, handcrafted moongates had spread throughout the island and had widely been ingrained into Bermuda’s architectural culture. These days, they can be found most everywhere including hotels, restaurants and public parks, and are a perfect natural frame for any photo (look for the one on back patio of the Hamilton Princess Hotel, which lights up at night). Even if you’re not a newlywed, step underneath and steal a kiss from your loved one: Local lore says that moongates will bring you good luck whether or not you just said, “I do.”
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