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The Jewish artist who portrayed Jamaica’s slaves Isaac Mendes Belisario was the first Jamaican artist to illustrate the traditions of that island’s slaves. Rebecca Taylor speaks to the artist’s biographer Jackie Ranston about his extraordinary legacy
REBECCA TAYLOR: How did you come across the artist? JACKIE RANSTON: The art of Isaac Mendes Belisario has long been used in books, and reproduced on everything from postage stamps to place mats, but little has been known of the man himself. I was commissioned by Valerie Facey of the Mill Press in Kingston to write a book on Belisario after she discovered that she had a connection to his Sketches of Characters. Sketches is a series of lithographs by Belisario, the most intriguing being the costumed characters of the annual Jonkonnu masquerade. The lithographs were issued to subscribers (a third of whom were Jewish) in 1837 and 1838. Valerie found out that one of the subscribers had been born a slave, and was one of her husband’s forebears.
RT: Tell us about Belisario’s background. JR: On his father’s side is the family Lindo, whose name appears in the records of the Portuguese and Spanish inquisitions. We rarely hear of black slaves in the households of crypto-Jews, but in 1655 Lorenco Isaac Lindo and his wife were denounced by their household slaves in the Canary Islands to “unburden their conscience and not through ill will”. After two years, the Lindos were released and they fled to London. Succeeding generations lived in Venice, Amsterdam and Bordeaux. It was from Bordeaux that Belisario’s paternal grandfather, Alexandre Lindo, migrated to Kingston in 1765 to become Jamaica’s wealthiest merchant. Esther his daughter married Abraham Mendes Belisario, whose father was Rabbi Isaac Mendes Belisario of Bevis Marks. Isaac, the artist, is named after him.
RT: Where did the artist grow up? JR: He was born in Kingston in 1794, the year that Lindo made his son-in-law a copartner in his business, which folded after a deal with the French government. Facing bankruptcy, Lindo and Belisario left for London with their families. Isaac was nine years old at the time. In London Isaac’s mother, Esther, set up a boarding school for Jewish girls in Clapton. Isaac also held the position of ‘Governor, Mehil Sedaca’ at Bevis Marks in 1824.
RT: How did he become a painter? JR: Abraham, Isaac’s father, returned to the West Indies alone to manage seven sugar estates on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. He left Isaac under the guardianship of his brother Jacob, a stock broker. Isaac was groomed to be a businessman, but his passion for painting was too intense. He became a student of Robert Hills, the English painter and etcher. Isaac’s first known work is a watercolour showing the interior of Bevis Marks painted c.1812, and followed with an engraving of the same view. Between 1815 and 1818, Isaac exhibited on four occasions at the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours, but in 1820 he put aside his artistic endeavours to work as a clerk to his uncle, eventually becoming a stockbroker. In 1830, he left the stock exchange to become a full-time artist, and the following year he exhibited a watercolour, Portrait of a Lady, at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition. The ‘lady’ appears to be the actress Ellen Tree. He followed this painting with a lithograph of her in the character of Mrs Cregan in Eily O’Connor.
RT: He returned to Jamaica in 1834. What happened next? JR: Isaac found an ideal location for his studio near Kingston’s Parade – a lively area with a military barracks, theatre, the free school and a promenade. He accepted various commissions, including one from the chief justice of Jamaica, and another from the governor, the Marquis of Sligo, to do a series of paintings of his estates (now held by the National Gallery of Jamaica).
He never married. He suffered from
24 JEWISHRENAISSANCE.ORG.UK JANUARY 2020