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A heritage worth a thousand pictures

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It was with a sudden and unexpected thrill in early 2009 that I stumbled upon the then unfinished mural by Graham Foster in what is now known as the Hall of History in the Commissioner's House on the grounds of the National Museum of Bermuda. Only a few times in the past has something been so visually captivating that I've been rendered “out-of-commission” while processing its magnificence. I had entered the living waters of Bermuda's history and what is surely to become known as one of the island's greatest works of art.' Janice Sorensen, an American artist

It is an old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, or as the Emperor Napoleon is deemed to have said, 'a good sketch is better than a long speech', suggesting that some politicians might take up the art of the brush to better effect than that of the podium or the pen. Speaking of the last instrument, sometimes of torture, I am reminded that the Editor usually only allows me a thousand words to paint an often complex picture of the past, so I will try and keep this note about a painting worth a million words, that is Graham Foster's mural of 500 years of Bermuda's history and heritage, to the limit of the legendary picture.

The worth of words, perhaps to reverse the adage, is that one or a group of those abstract symbols creates images in the mind, visions that often cannot be translated into a pictorial sketch. In many instances, words describe concepts that may be impossible to convert to a canvas or any other artistic media. Words are wonderful as they allow us to paint pictures in our minds, sometimes on a continuous basis, as when reading a novel. Those visions of the mind, however, are a personal experience that fade and change as each sentence comes and goes. Such images of the mind are not comparable to the permanent visions of the artist on canvas, though one word or a group of words can conjure up a thousand pictures, but they are fleeting and impermanent. Artists, as opposed to writers, transcribe such inner visions into a permanent picture on canvas, and in so doing create heritage in the field of the visual arts.

The very active community of artists, many local and others resident here paint such heritage, some outstanding, into history on a daily basis in Bermuda. Of recent years, there has been nothing to compare with the size and broad content of that produced by Bermudian artist Graham Foster in the great mural at the Commissioner's House at the National Museum. Not only has this extraordinary work of art already taken, since its late 2009 completion, its place in the panoply of the island's visual heritage, but the one thousand square foot canvas has an encompassing vision of the history and heritage of Bermuda itself and its people, the last resident in the place for four centuries. Now the entire painting is available for perusal at your leisure in an oversized art book, wherein the detail of its Bermuda heritage in a visual format is displayed in all of its glory by one of the island's outstanding artists.

It all began as a concept in words: 'The only thing to do with this room in the Commissioner's House is to paint the walls, as being a major staircase to the original kitchen, there is little floor space for exhibits'. From that vision in words, the view of an artist was sought on the matter: 'Could you paint these walls, Mr. Foster, without (as Her Majesty later asked) going mad?' The meeting was inconclusive and Bermuda's Michelangelo-to-be disappeared into a lengthy silence and so the matter appeared at an end. A few weeks later, Graham walked into my office carrying a scale model of the Pillared Hall, with all the walls painted in exquisite detail, a major work of art in itself (now on exhibit in the Hall). Richard and Helen Fraser of Tucker's Town offered to sponsor the project and thus began Foster's epic voyage down three and a half years of applying paint to canvas, as it were, culminating with the opening of the 'Hall of History' mural by Her Majesty The Queen on 25 November, 2009.

As a friend lately reminded me, it all started in an old boathouse down on the North Shore in Pembroke, an inhospitable place in the north winds of winter, but offering wonderful views of the sea thereafter, which no doubt helped the artist with his visualisation of the water world, for it is the flow of the sea that connects many of the vignettes and then channels the eye onto the next episode in the mural. My friend and others had no idea of the wider context in which the individual 8x4 “canvasses” on which Graham was applying waves of heritage in paint fitted and thus was taken by surprise when viewing the entire mural for the first time several years later. Endless days (and nights) in the boathouse were coupled with hours on the scaffolding in the Hall at Commissioner's House, joining all the canvasses together to make a stunning work of heritage and an epic statement of Bermuda art history.

Shining through the waves and through every heritage vignette is Graham's love and passion for Bermuda, as the islander that he is: would that we all loved this fragile place in the same way.

Bermuda's heritage is indeed worth a thousand pictures and Graham Foster has served up a feast of some hundreds for you in his mural at the National Museum. Now you can view the entire painting through the book on the 'Hall of History' at your leisure and you will likely agree that his single canvas of a thousand pictures is worth one word: 'Magnificent'. Thank you Graham Foster for this gift of new heritage to Bermuda.

The 'Hall of History' book by Rosemary Jones and Graham Foster is available in bookstores or direct from the National Museum, where a discount may apply: contact Dr Harris at director[AT]bmm.bm for such latter purchases.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director[AT]bmm.bm or 704-5480.

Built for trade: A moonlight scene of maritime Bermuda with a classic sloop and shipbuilding on the shore.
Beginnings: One of the hundreds of preparatory sketches for the Foster mural, with an interior view of a head.
Survival: Spanish swine were hunted down by Sir George Somers from the Sea Venture (1609-10).
Free at last: Bermudians of African descent emerging from church after Emancipation and fishing from shore.
Busy city: Military, civilian and religious groups march down Front Street, a blaze of colours all round.

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Published November 26, 2011 at 1:00 am (Updated November 26, 2011 at 6:58 am)

A heritage worth a thousand pictures

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