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A new niche

“Ever since Mr Ronald Tree made public last year his appreciation of Barbadian woodworkers and furniture makers, there has been a great local interest in the possibility of selling Barbadian furniture in America. Mr Tree is back in Barbados again and the public will be interested to know that he is still confident that high quality furniture can be made here in Barbados for sale in New York and other American cities. Sample shipments of furniture made in Barbados by local craftsmen, according to specifications sent down from New York have been made to America and the most favourable impressions have been formed as to quality.”

Barbados Advocate, Editorial, 1952

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Barbados tourism development was centred mostly on the Southern and Eastern Coast of Barbados, from Bridgetown to the Crane with enclaves at Cattlewash, Bathsheba and Tent Bay in St Joseph. Tourism traffic came mainly by sea and Barbados, because of its location, was a major stop for ships sailing between Europe and South America.

By the 1940s and 1950s, the less balmy and more placid West Coast beaches were discovered by wealthy well connected British and American celebrities. It wasn’t long before large acreages were purchased and mansions built. Among them was Claudette Colbert, the American movie actress who lived at the end of Road View just before you entered Speightstown; Sir Edward Cunard, scion of Cunard Shipping Lines at Glitter Bay, Mount Standfast; and Sir Ronald Tree at Heron Bay, Porters, St James.

It was during this period that the urban myth developed that if you found a shilling in St. James, you had to kick it ’til you get to Eagle Hall Corner before you would feel safe to bend down and pick it up.

In the late 1950s, Ronald Tree pioneered the conversion of Sandy Lane Plantation into the high end development that it is today. Sandy Lane Hotel was opened in 1961. At the same time the airport was updated to meet the demands of the new aircraft and the new and modern Bridgetown harbour was built to accommodate the largest ships around.

In the extract above, Sir Ronald was extolling his “appreciation of Barbadian woodworkers and furniture makers”. The year was 1950 and the editorial was written on Sunday, March 4, 1951.

Here is what the Trinidad-born Philip Sturm, the West Indian antique furniture expert and author of the book West Indian Antique Furniture of the Lesser Antilles 1740-1940 published in 2007 had to say about Bajan furniture.

A large influx of army personnel, their families and dependents, [came] into the Bajan society, causing a stir and influencing furniture styles. With all this came the demand for “Campaign Furniture” and other furnishings. Furniture made for military campaigns and used mainly by officers, collapsed, folded, unscrewed and divided for easy transportation.

It included chairs, desks, lap desks, beds, chests, cellarets and boxes. The construction of all these pieces had necessary brass boundaries for extra strength. All the joints and especially the corners were brass protected. The handles were flush with the pulls recessed… This “campaign style” … remained one of the forms produced in Barbados throughout the 18th and 19th centuries especially the folding chair.

After the 1838 hurricane in Barbados, the furniture cottage craft was expanded and upgraded for exportation. Barbados exported furniture during the eighteen century to the other British colonies including America, especially Charleston… By the 1820s Barbados produced enough furniture to export fully to the other islands and to free-ports, and throughout the British West Indies.

What has happened to this furniture that earned the encomiums of the wealthy, scholars, and experts the world over? More importantly, what has happened to all the artisans or joiners who produced this world class furniture?

Demand for this furniture decreased by Independence in 1966. After Independence, many owners sold off their furniture as they cashed in and migrated. It was actually a time for great bargains and quite a bit of it was purchased by overseas speculators and ended up in Trinidad, Martinique, Guadeloupe and subsequently France. Public taste also changed as it came under the influence of cheap commercial furniture available on hire purchase.

The traditional joiners slowly disappeared as no apprentices were coming forward to learn the trade that was mostly repair and restoration work and that was not sufficient to make a good living. With this attrition, a major part of our inherent intellectual heritage is static and in danger of disappearing.

For Barbados and Bajans to take advantage of this major asset, we have to first educate the general public about what this furniture looks like and what constitutes its distinguishing factors. A great variety of this furniture can be found in Wildey Great House, Tyrol Cot, the Barbados Museum and Sunbury Museum. The public has access to these museums but there is very little available to teach the public about it.

I believe that there are ways in which we can capitalise on this heritage.

1. The government should make its broadcast time available to educate the public with 30 second messages about the furniture.

2. The Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic should develop a programme in its woodworking department to train traditional joiners who can build reproductions of this existing collection for sale to visitors.

3. The SJPP should organise weekly tours of the nearby Wildey Great House to expose students to this vast heritage,

4. The SJPP should utilise the service of Barbadian experts Andy Tempro and Nicholas Forde as lecturers, appraisers and consultants in the development of programme.

5. To assist in this training, the SJPP should seek assistance to get two or three experts from Cuba to teach restoration.

6. The drafting department of the SJPP should undertake to train users of Computer Assisted Drawings to produce profiles of all furniture in the collections.

7. The SJPP, the Barbados National Trust and the Barbados Museum need to establish patents and relevant branding for the reproductions.

In my historical recap earlier, I made the point that we use to export not only finished items but items that could be reassembled.

Finally, as I have been emphasizing, it is imperative that a people know what its heritage is and take ownership of it. It is not the prerogative of a few. Government, regardless of party, must understand and recognise that its responsibility is not just the formal education that takes place in its schools and educational institutions but the informal channels such as television, radio and the Internet.

If we mek de beds, we must sleep pun dem!

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