Agostino Brunias: Italian Artist in Dominica

Few of the artists in the Windward Islands during the 18th and 19th centuries have recorded the life and costume of the people at the time with the same detail as Agostino Brunias, painter and engraver.

Born in Rome in 1730, he first came to the West Indies as an artist to Sir William Young, Baronet, who became Governor of Dominica in 1771. Trained in Italy and having later settled in England, he developed a preference for studies of life rather than landscape. While other artists were sketching the forts, ports and rural plantation scenes of the sugar-rich West Indies, Brunias was looking closely at the people around him.

With Young as his patron he had the time and facilities that are ideal to the artist. Besides his post in Dominica, Young had estates in St. Vincent which required periodic visits. Brunias accompanied him on these trips which included calls to St. Lucia, Grenada and Barbados. Today a copy of one of his prints: "A Barbados Mulatto Girl" is sold as a souvenir of the island's museum. The Barbados Museum incidentally had one of the best collections of West Indies prints in the region. The bulk of Brunias' work however was done in Dominica and his prints were published in London, some of them long after his term with Young was over. Most are dedicated with great flourish to his patron. But there are others bearing dedications to such early colonial personalities as Sir john Frederick and Charles O'Hara, Crown Surveyor in Dominica during the 1770s and later a Brigadier General.

Brunias' work has classical qualities, figures, regardless of what they may be doing, fighting or washing, are poised with seemingly elegant ease in settings characteristic of the period. It is this classicism in Brunias' work that makes his prints such peaceful and pleasant works of art.

The costume of the time is recorded in magnificent detail, giving valuable insight into the dress and conditions of the age. In his prints one can follow the social order of fashion. Beginning with the issued denim or chambray livery or "livre" of the field slaves through to the extravagant material and colours of the freed slaves and mulattoes; different styles of tying the madras head kerchiefs and of wearing the accordion-pleated petticoats, strapped bodices and silk "foulards". His near-nude washer woman on the luxuriant banks of streams adds a prophetic touch to the primitive Gauguin to the style which Brunias followed.

But this was not his only medium. The programme of an exhibition of paintings at the Royal Academy in London in 1774 mentions two paintings by Brunias, a view of the town of Roseau and one of the Roseau river.

In 1777 they also hung "A Negroes Sunday market in the island of Dominica". In 1854 a Paris journal "Manuel de L'amaterus d'etranges" mentions the exhibition of certain of his prints.

Governor Young left Dominica in 1773. Brunias went to England and visited the Continent, still keeping in touch with his patron and later returning to Dominica. He died in Roseau on 2nd April 1796 at the age of 66 and was buried in the Old Roman Catholic Cemetery. In the mid-nineteenth Century the site of the cemetery was cleared and the present Roseau Cathedral built. Except for the record of his death and a few of his prints in private collections, there is almost no information in Dominica about Agostino Brunias.

There has however been one interesting development. In the baptismal records of the Roseau Cathedral an entry was found noting the baptism of "Edward and Augustin two illegitimate children born on the 1st october 1774 of Louis Brunias and a free mulatto woman".

Is there any connection? Is Louis Brunias anything to do with Agostino Brunias? Are they one and the same person? And if so, are the present-day Bruney families in Dominica the descendants of this eighteenth century artist, traveller and chronicler in our island's history?

Extracted from: Dominica's Arts & Culture Magazine, Division of Culture, 1994
by Lennox Honychurch

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