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1960 Dod Procter's Jamaican Girl

Dod Procter travelled to Jamaica for the first time in 1953–1954, and she returned again for the winters of 1956, 1958, and 1961. She chose, in response, to paint images of Jamaican children that she encountered while she was there. Jamaican Girl, about 1956–1960, is one of these works, and the Royal Academy purchased it after it was exhibited in the Summer Exhibition of 1960 (Fig. 1). Other similar works by Procter of black sitters were frequently reproduced in the Academy’s illustrated catalogues and seem to have been particularly popular though they garnered relatively little comment in the art press, perhaps as a result of Procter’s association with the pre-war generation. Jamaica had been the latest destination of choice for Procter in the years since her husband Ernest, also an artist, had died in October 1935—she had visited Canada and America immediately after his death, Tenerife in 1938–1939 and again in 1946, and Africa in 1948. Many of these trips produced artworks too, and they added different dimensions to her oeuvre in her later years. She had initially found success after she began producing arresting, quiet paintings of young girls, most notably Morning, a study of a fisherman’s daughter called Cissie Barnes, which she showed at the Summer Exhibition in 1927. It was immediately bought for the nation by The Daily Mail and presented to the Tate.1

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Jamaica was already on the path towards independence when Procter was visiting the country and painting Jamaican Girl. It had been a British colony since the mid-seventeenth century, though there had been a growing independence movement since the beginning of the twentieth century. A key turning point had been the British West Indian labour unrest of 1934–1939, which saw a series of strikes and riots across the Caribbean in protest at inequalities of wealth between British and native residents. Alexander Bustamante’s Jamaica Labour Party were elected in 1943, establishing a new system of government and a new constitution that granted universal adult suffrage. By the end of the Second World War, as the British Empire began to disintegrate, the process of decolonisation in Jamaica was accelerated by the election of Norman Manley’s People’s National Party in 1955. In 1958, the country entered the West Indies Federation, a political union of the ten British colonial territories that was designed to, eventually, unite them into a single, independent state, though Jamaica left in 1961 and the Federation collapsed in the following year. On 19 July 1962, the British parliament passed the Jamaican Independence Act, finally granting the country independence as of 6 August that year.2

Perhaps inevitably, there is little recognition of the political and social reality of Jamaica at this moment in Procter’s Jamaican Girl. Her visits there were facilitated by a booming tourist industry, aimed at both Americans and Britons, which would have allowed her to ignore or avoid the wider developments in the country; she travelled on the banana boats operated by the Elder Fyffe company.3 Procter’s portrait focuses on the girl’s head and a small section of her shoulders. She turns slightly to look away, to our right hand side, her gaze cast downwards slightly. This look—or lack of it—reveals something of the dynamics between the black child sitter and the white adult artist; she is passive, a subject observed but one that doesn’t gaze back. In fact, the way in which she has turned, causing the side of her head on the left to catch the light while her facial features fall into shadow, means that this feels like an exercise in painting black skin, rather than painting a black person. Indeed, Procter described herself as “tops at black” and indicated that this was her main concern when painting black sitters, who she paid for modelling with a sweet.4

By the late 1950s, Procter did not need to travel all the way to Jamaica in order to paint a black child. The post-war period had, famously, seen an increase in migration to Britain from the countries that made up the British Empire, most notably from South Asia and the West Indies, ever since the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in 1948. Black migrants were initially welcomed ecstatically as members of Britain’s extended “imperial family”, and they became part of the make up of British cities at this time. By the late 1950s, while Procter was painting this work, racial tensions had increased due to the perceived high number of migrants, though they remained a relatively small percentage of the population. Over the summer of 1958, in Nottingham and in London (where Procter lived), these tensions broke out into violent riots. The popular perception of black migrants at this moment was that they had brought a “colour problem” into Britain’s cities, and were contributing to national decline—racist stereotypes associated them with familial breakdown, violence, and crime.5

In Jamaican Girl, Procter distances herself from this context. She travels to what is still—just—the British Empire and finds a subject that is at a suitable remove from the realities and tensions of post-war migration back at home. Her Jamaican Girl is a member of Britain’s “imperial family” who had remained, reassuringly, at a distance. She is passive and obedient. The fact that Procter was drawn to paint images of children like this is also significant. This Jamaican girl is given an air of innocence that might feel reassuring to viewers anxious about migration and decolonisation—she is, perhaps, part of a new generation of Jamaicans that might not pose such a threat after all. There are parallels, perhaps, with Joan Eardley’s images of working-class children in 1940s and 1950s Glasgow, such as Children and Chalked Wall 3, 1962–1963 (Fig. 2), which seem to embrace the innocence and hope of childhood in a period of severe post-war struggle. Procter’s Jamaican Girl is similarly rooted in ongoing post-war uncertainty—specifically of migration and decolonisation—and appears to be intended to reassure rather than reflect on this uncertain reality.

  1. See Alison James, A Singular Vision: Dod Procter 1890–1972 (Bristol: Samson and Company, 2007).↩︎

  2. See O. Nigel Bolland, On the March: Labour Rebellions in the British Caribbean, 1934–39 (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1995); Richard Hart, Towards Decolonisation: Political, Labour and Economic Development in Jamaica 1938–1945 (Kingston: Canoe Press of the University of the West of Indies, 1999); and Gordon K. Lewis, The Growth of the Modern West Indies (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2004 [1968]).↩︎

  3. See Frank Taylor, To Hell with Paradise: A History of the Jamaican Tourist Industry (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993), 156–178; and James, A Singular Vision, 117.↩︎

  4. See Averil King, “An Exotic Awakening: The Art of Dod Procter”, Apollo 163, no. 527 (January 2006): 28–33; and James, A Singular Vision, 118–119.↩︎

  5. See Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984), 372–375; Colin Holmes, John Bull’s Island: Immigration and British Society, 1871–1971 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), 256–262; and Wendy Webster, Imagining Home: Gender, “Race”, and National Identity, 1945–64 (London: UCL Press, 1998).↩︎

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Explore the 1960 catalogue