This remarkable panoramic view of St Vincent was made in 1824 by the island’s most celebrated naturalist, Lansdown Guilding. Carefully worked over two conjoined sheets and inscribed on the verso by Guilding, stating it was made using a Camera Lucida, this wonderfully preserved watercolour affords a remarkable view of the early nineteenth-century Caribbean. Guilding’s drawing apparently shows the verdant, largely undeveloped coastline along the bay of Kingstown, but closer inspection reveals the infrastructure of empire, both commercial and military. St Vincent passed between British and French colonial control during the second half of the eighteenth century as well as being the locus of protracted armed struggle between the indigenous Garifuna and British occupiers.
Lansdown Guilding was born in Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent in 1797, the son of the Reverend John Guilding. Educated in England, Guilding studied at Oxford University, before returning to the Caribbean in 1817 where he succeeded his father as rector of St George’s, Kingstown. Lansdown’s principal interest was in natural history and he became an important conduit of scientific knowledge, gathering observations on the flora and fauna of St Vincent and other Caribbean islands which he communicated with the burgeoning learned societies back in Britain. From 1818 Guilding was a fellow of the Linnean Society and by 1820 he was in regular contact with the leading botanist Joseph Hooker, his friend Charles Darwin and Aylmer Lambert. Guilding’s papers for the Linnean Society show him to have been an able scientific artist and there is evidence that he prided himself on the accuracy of his work and use of colour. This remarkably rare panoramic view is carefully inscribed on the verso by Guilding, who indicates it was made using a camera lucida, and he owned one designed by Sir David Brewster. The view was probably one of several Guilding made in preparation for a proposed publication on the island. We know that he had climbed to the crater of Mount Soufrière and intended to publish on the geology of the volcano, several of Guilding’s drawings of the volcano survive in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art. In September 1824 Guilding wrote to William John Swaison: ‘I have formed a fine collection of landscapes to illustrate the geology of these islands. How can I best publish them?’ The present watercolour shows Guilding sensitivity to colour. Guilding prepared a ‘table of colours arranged for naturalists’ which he submitted to the Wenerian Natural History Society in 1825. This may have been one of the first biological colour charts but has since been lost.
Guilding’s watercolour shows the view looking north west across Kingstown bay towards Fort Charlotte, the military emplacement constructed by the British to protect Kingstown harbour. On re-taking the island from the French at the conclusion of the Seven Years War, the British began construction of the fort which supported 600 troops and 34 guns. The military presence of the British state is further underscored by the inclusion of two guns in the foreground of the watercolour and two men in British army uniform. In the shelter of Kingstown harbour Guilding shows a number of merchant vessels. During the nineteenth century a plantation economy grew, producing sugar, cotton, coffee and cocoa with the use of the labour of enslaved Africans. Guilding’s surviving correspondence hints at the fragile nature of St Vincent’s export focussed economy; he attempted to justify the financial benefits of the flora he is describing and explains the difficulty of acquiring even basic equipment (such as bottles) on the island. The ships Guilding carefully delineate in this watercolour were also his singular means of communication with Europe. Preserved in remarkable condition, this dazzling topographical study affords an extraordinary window on the island of St Vincent at the beginning of the nineteenth century.