Art Deco in Jamaica

Henry Haye Art

Fig. 1. A mahogany chest of drawers designed by Burnett Webster (1909–1992) and fabricated by master woodworker and sculptor Alvin Marriot (1902–1992), c. 1936. Note how the cresting tops of the stylized carved waves form the drawer pulls. The placement of the waves reflects the balanced asymmetry of real waves rising and falling rhythmically in nature. All furniture in this article, except as noted, was originally in Webster’s personal collection. Atop the chest sits a nineteenth-century Jamaican lignum vitae tobacco jar. Above hangs a photograph of Pocomania, a 1936 sculpture made of Hopton Wood stone by Jamaican artist Edna Manley (1900–1987). All objects illustrated are in the collection of the author; all photographs are by Julia Lynn Photography.

Not long after art deco design received an international showcase at the famed Paris universal exposition of 1925, inspired responses to the new style emerged in virtually every field of the applied and visual arts. Beyond architecture and furniture design, the influence of art deco touched glassware, ceramics, and metalwork as well as sculpture, painting, and the graphic arts. Within ten years, iterations of the new cosmopolitan aesthetic had appeared the world over—not only across Europe and Britain and the United States, but also in Japan, Latin America, India, and even in the Caribbean islands. During the 1930s, Jamaican furniture designer and interior decorator Burnett Webster conceived some of the most refined designs of the art deco era—though his work remains little known outside the island. His designs were a reflection not only of Webster’s own talents and artistic sensibilities, but also of the richness of his homeland: composed of native hardwoods such as mahogany, yacca, and tamarind; incorporating decorative motifs inspired by tropical flora and the waves in the sea; and built by craftsmen whose skills were born of a furniture-making tradition that dates to the eighteenth century. In the excellence of their fabrication and the exquisiteness of their materials, Webster’s designs were at least equal to the best furnishings produced in Europe in the art deco era; and in the originality of their lines and the symbolic grace of their ornamentation, his pieces can be said to be a perfect fusion of fine and decorative art.

Fig. 2. Portrait of Webster by Hubert Andrew Freeth (1912–1986), 1943. Inscribed “H.A. Freeth/ Cairo 1943” at lower right. Charcoal on paper, 9 by 11 inches.

While his designs were extraordinary, Burnett Webster was in many ways a typical member of the British gentry in Jamaica. He was born in 1909 in the Cayman Islands, then a protectorate and part of Jamaica, to a family well established in business in Jamaica. In 1928 he left for Britain to study at Oxford University, where he majored in history but enjoyed playing in, producing, and designing sets for college theatrical shows. Once back home, he worked briefly for the family lumber business, but his talent for set design apparently prompted him to open an interior decorating firm and art and design gallery in 1933 on Harbour Street in Kingston, the principal city in Jamaica.

The Jamaica that Webster returned to from Oxford was an island on a path to great change. The third and fourth decades of the twentieth century saw the first moves, often accompanied by popular unrest, toward true political transition and majority democratic participation. Art would play a role in this movement, reflecting cultural trends that paralleled the rising political influence of the wider population. In Kingston, a small group of artists—classically trained, but embracing modernism, many of them expatriates who had adopted Jamaica as their home—came together in a commitment to make the arts and art education agencies of progressive reform. The pre-eminent member of the group was Edna Manley, a sculptor and an English-born member of an old Jamaican family. Active in politics alongside her husband, Norman Manley—who became a leading statesman as Jamaica moved towards independence from Britain in 1962—she sought to create sculptures that expressed the longings of the majority Black population for full civil and political rights. The younger Webster was a member of her artistic circle. Some of his earliest works in art deco design were a group of tables built as platforms for Manley’s sculptures when they were shown in 1937 in her first solo exhibition in London. Most notable was a sleek triangular table in tamarind wood, made to hold Manley’s 1935 sculpture Negro Aroused. (Even though its title may ring off-key to contemporary ears, the sculpture was greeted as a powerful symbol of national political aspiration when it was unveiled. Purchased by public subscription in 1937, it is now a centerpiece of the National Gallery of Jamaica.) Webster had a duplicate of the table built in mahogany for his personal furniture collection (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. Detail of one of the supports of the console table in Fig. 6.

In a series of advertisements for his shop that he placed in the arts magazine West Indian Review between 1934 and 1939, Webster declared that he was a modern designer and decorator committed to “correct principles, in the spirit of art and architecture of the times.”* (He made a point to say he would not take commissions to reproduce antiques, though he did have a few, mostly Regency-style pieces, made for himself and friends.) His store offered housewares of all kinds, including glass pieces by Steuben and art deco designer Keith Murray. Beyond seating, tables, and case pieces, Webster designed a spectrum of hand-carved objects such as lamp bases, light brackets, bookends, shelving pieces, ink stands, and a variety of boxes for cigarettes, trinkets, and other objects.

To bring his design ideas to life, Webster depended on the help of joiners with skills that had been, in some cases, passed down generation to generation since the days when Scottish-born cabinetmaker Ralph Turnbull set up shop in Jamaica in the early nineteenth century. They also inspired Webster’s commitment to use only local hardwoods, often in combination in a single design. Webster’s earliest modern furniture pieces, like the triangular table made for Manley, were fairly simple, with curvilinear geometric lines. Others gained their eye appeal from lacquered finishes in contrasting colors. But the relatively plain, though elegant, simplicity of those pieces may say more about the abilities of the joiners he worked with than about Webster’s powers of conception. He truly came into his own as a modern designer when, in 1936, he began an association with Alvin Marriott, a highly talented woodcarver who would later make his name as a figural sculptor.

Fig. 4. For his personal collection, Webster made a duplicate, in flame mahogany and dating to c. 1935–1937, of the triangular table that he crafted in tamarind for Edna Manley’s 1937 solo exhibition In London, specifically for her sculpture Negro Aroused. That sculpture and the table are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston. Atop this table sits a c. 1966 sculpture by Jamaican artist Mallica Reynolds, known as Kapo (1911–1989), titled Out of Many, One People—the national motto of Jamaica.

Working with Marriott across three years, Webster produced utterly wonderful modern furniture designs. They include a mahogany chest with drawer pulls formed by stylized cresting waves (Fig. 1); a mahogany desk with a comma-shaped top that incorporates an inlaid Fibonacci spiral made of satinwood (Figs. 7, 7a); and a console with ebullient supports in the shape of robust scrolls (Fig. 6). (The shape of the those supports, a friend of Webster’s told me, was inspired by the profiles of pouter pigeons.) He also designed tables with corners that form a stylized ram’s head (Fig. 11) and a bedstead with attached flanking night tables that boast elegant scrolled drawer pulls (Figs. 13, 13a). Along the way, Webster created many other excellent, if less bravura, designs for seating and case pieces such as open-sided club chairs (Fig. 9), cylindrical bar cabinets, a blanket chest composed of four woods with contrasting grains, and a group of arm-and side chairs with looping elliptical back splats (Fig. 8).

Fig. 5. A five-tier chest of drawers made of West Indian satinwood (also known as yellow sanders) and yacca, designed by Webster c. 1935. Partially visible on the wall above is one of a pair of Italian mirrors, c. 1935, that once hung in Webster’s bedroom.

Not long after the outbreak of European hostilities in World War II, Webster closed his Kingston business, went back to England, and joined the Royal Air Force, in which he served as a flight lieutenant. After the war he returned to Jamaica to take up work as the director of the family’s Webster Lumber Company, leaving his career in design behind. By the 1960s his work in that field had been largely forgotten by the public, and most of his work was dispersed—sold, re-sold, misidentified, mishandled. Then in 1999, the National Gallery of Jamaica mounted the retrospective Jamaican Art Deco: The Designs of Burnett Webster. The exhibition celebrated Webster’s furniture, placing it in the context of work by artists like Edna Manley and others whose work reflected the streamlined art deco aesthetic. Moreover, the show gave Webster his due as a trailblazer of art deco design in the Caribbean. Cuban-American art historian Irina Leyva-Pérez, co-curator of the exhibition with the National Gallery’s director, David Boxer, and principal author of the show’s catalogue, wrote: “The influence of art deco on Jamaican furniture was profound. Furniture took a new definition through the pieces designed by Burnett Webster. By the 1940’s and 1950’s deco inspired furniture was commonplace; but in the 1930’s Burnett Webster’s designs were seminal.”

Fig. 6. A console table designed by Webster c. 1936 and crafted in mahogany, fustic, and West Indian satinwood. The ebullient scrolling of the supports was inspired by the shape of pouter pigeons. The mahogany horse-head bookends were made in Haiti c. 1935.

All Webster furniture is scarce, and fully documented Webster designs are rarer still. The masterpieces are almost all unique, and most are from Webster’s personal collection of his own designs. Many attributions of work to him are dubious, made by those who are unschooled in his stylistic cues and construction techniques. In fact, Webster once devoted one of his advertisements in the West Indian Review to a warning about infringements on his design copyright. Alongside Webster pieces owned by David Boxer himself and a few loaned by Boxer’s family and friends, most of the Webster furniture pieces in the 1999 exhibition came from the designer’s own collection. They include the principal works shown in these pages. I am honored to be the current steward of Webster’s personal design collection and to share it with readers of this article.

Figs. 7, 7a. This mahogany desk with West Indian satinwood inlay, designed by Webster c. 1936, is a particularly dynamic piece. The left side has a pillar support with a sweeping curved wing forming the base; the right side is anchored by a large column containing four stacked drawers with continuous vertically incised pulls. The comma-shaped desktop is enlivened by the Fibonacci spiral of inlaid satinwood.

Fig 8. The fustic and Santa Maria wood dining table, designed by Webster c. 1936, was once in the collection of Jamaican artist and museum director David Boxer (1946–2017). The tops of the tapered legs are carved with an abstract flower petal form. That motif is echoed in the armand side chairs that surround the table. The chairs, designed c. 1936, are made of fustic and West Indian satinwood and have rounded, continuous top rails and stiles enclosing scrolled back splats. Flanking the doorway are two rectilinear bookcases lacquered in black and white dating to early in Webster’s career, c. 1935. Webster advertised that these pieces were available either in contrasting black, silver, or white lacquer, or in contrasting natural woods.

Webster’s advertised motto was “Furniture for the Fastidious,” a promise that in design and execution he certainly fulfilled. But in view of the rarity of his work, its beauty, and its seminal importance to the mid-century decorative arts in Jamaica and to furniture history in general, we are well served by the fact that he was equally fastidious both as artist and client—and thus became one of his own best customers, and ultimately thereby his own best conservator.

HENRY HAYE is a collector and amateur scholar of Jamaican decorative arts, who, with a colleague, is writing a chronicle of Jamaican furniture history based on his collection. That book will illustrate the substantial, but now mostly forgotten, role played since 1670 by Jamaican designers and craftspeople in furthering European and African furniture-making traditions in the New World—Burnett Webster and his colleagues being prime twentieth-century examples.

Fig. 9. A pair of club chairs, with mahogany arms and bases that form a continuous loop, designed c. 1933–1939 and attributed to Webster, flank a small shelving unit framed in mahogany, with a contrasting drawer front and base faced in yacca. Designed c. 1933–1936, the bookcase is the only piece from Webster’s personal collection that bears his maker’s label, as only a handful of known Webster pieces do. Above this grouping hangs a 1946 watercolor by L. Gerard Paine (1905–1968) depicting Webster’s postwar home, Roxana, on Seaview Avenue in Kingston.

Fig. 10. Another small bookcase, designed c. 1933–1936 and attributed to Webster, framed in opposing sections of mahogany and yacca. The shelves are backlit by a Bakelite lamp incorporated into the yacca base.

Fig. 11. Detail of the corner of a mahogany and West Indian satinwood console table, designed c. 1936– 1939, carved in the form of a stylized ram’s head.

Fig. 12. A bravura sculptural mahogany lamp base, carved by Marriot for Webster c. 1937, with ascending scrolls that resemble tropical plant forms. The lamp base was previously in the Boxer collection.

Fig. 13. The tripartite bedstead, designed c. 1936, is made of yacca and West Indian satinwood. The headboard incorporates recessed lighting and is attached to two night tables—one with four drawers, the other with open shelving. At the foot of the bed stands a blanket chest designed c. 1936 and crafted from mahogany, West Indian satinwood, greenheart, and yacca.

Fig. 13a. Detail of one of the scrolled satinwood drawer pulls on the night tables in Fig. 13.