Did You Know? The Artist Robert MacLeod's Atlantic Rhapsody


Sir Henry Fraser

February 28, 2023

Did you know that the prolific Bajan artist Robert James MacLeod was born in New York of a Bajan mother and a Scottish father – a truly international heritage!

He was born in Greenwich Village in New York – famous as home of the hippies for decades – on August 24th, 1888. His mother was a Barbadian Yearwood – Ida Elizabeth – and she brought him home when he was just a year old, so apparently he always saw Barbados as home. He was at pains to tell people that he learnt his ABC on Hastings Rocks, and this dramatic “school room” site probably profoundly influenced him, creating a life-long passion for painting the sea.

He received his early education in Barbados and started drawing from the age of seven. He returned to New York as a teenager, and started to pursue art studies at what was called the Art Students League, at 17, in April 1906. 

The Art Students League was an interesting network of studios, each run by an individual artist instructor. It was linked with a satellite facility, the Lyme Summer School of Art in Old Lyme, a small coastal village in Connecticut… a kind of art colony.

This provided MacLeod with experience and passion for plein air painting… that’s out of doors landscape painting, that was to be his forte all his life.

He did a bit of acting, studied graphic art, worked with a famous American artist Frank Bicknell in Connecticut, and finally came home in 1936.

Alissandra Cummins, Director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, has produced a splendid book – a magnificent catalogue but really a comprehensive retrospective collection of his work, telling the story of his close relationship with the BMHS, and drawing on the paintings owned by many collectors. These were loaned for the Museum’s exhibition, and it was a truly comprehensive show. The book is for sale in the Museum shop.

Alissandra describes his return at the age of 48 as the return of the prodigal. He lived in Barbados in Hastings, then Chelsea Road and then Culloden Road, and he visited Dominica, Grenada and St. Lucia to paint there as well. So while he was passionate about his Barbadian seascapes, he was equally fond of the people and mountains of St. Lucia and Dominica. He also spent a couple of years at the BMHS as temporary curator.

He was intimately involved with the philosophy and approach of the museum, and he held annual exhibitions of his paintings there every year or two for twenty years.

Alissandra titled her book Atlantic Rhapsody, but while the subtitle ‘Elegy to the Islands’ suggests a sad refrain, it’s really a moving, almost surreal celebration of the sea – of the Atlantic surf, its beauty and energy. He seemed to be mesmerised by the ever-changing movement of the waves, although he could sometimes paint the tranquil sea at Martin’s Bay with as much feeling as the magical movement at the Crane or Bathsheba. His strong, confident brush strokes, rich colours and superb compositions produced the most moving rhapsodies!

Sadly, Robert MacLeod died in straightened circumstances, and was interred at Westbury Cemetery on June 1st, 1971. His brilliant work is little known by Bajans today, fifty years later, and the Museum has done a wonderful job in bringing him to light again. 

Robert Jim MacLeod – A shining Bajan light, turned on again.

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Did You Know? The Artist Robert MacLeod's Atlantic Rhapsody