Most Jamaicans are familiar with the history of Devon House, which was built in 1881 for Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel and part of its popular appeal stems from its symbolic association with the social changes of that time. The related story about the construction of Lady Musgrave Road, as a way for the colonial governor’s wife to avoid the socially provocative sight of Devon House, may be historically inaccurate but its continued hold on the public imagination stems from how it invokes those momentous challenges to the colonial status quo. This history makes the present social re-segregation at Devon House all the more disturbing, as the house is arguably part of Jamaica’s historical birthright.
Devon House was in the mid-1960s – a time which also saw a construction boom – slated for demolition. It was an inspired intervention by Edward Seaga to initiate the acquisition and restoration of the property as a heritage and recreation site for the use of the people of Jamaica; as a site to promote Jamaican craft, through Things Jamaican, and as a tourist attraction. The idea was always that there would be commercial activities that would help to finance the operations, and there is nothing wrong with that per se, but not, I imagine, that these would take the upper hand over its other, more important cultural and public recreational functions. Devon House is not a private business, which needs to generate profits at all costs, but a publicly accessible heritage site, and it needs to be managed accordingly.
Devon House holds a foundational place in the history of art in Jamaica as it was the first home of the National Gallery of Jamaica, which opened there on November 14, 1974 (and not in 1972, as the tour guides at Devon House routinely state). Housing the new National Gallery at Devon House was, for various reasons, a fortuitous move, as the attractiveness and central location and historical significance of the property positioned the new art museum well for high local and tourist foot traffic. There were, however, also technical limitations, such as the small size of the main house and its individual rooms, at least for an art museum; the lack of climate control and the openness of the building to the elements, and its susceptibility to natural disasters, fire and termites, because of the high ratio of wood in the structure. But these could have been remedied and there were, in fact, plans in the late 1970s for a modern building to be added on what is currently the site of the extended parking lot – far enough from the main house not to interfere with its historical and aesthetic integrity. I have seen the concept drawings and it seemed like a feasible and sustainable way to combine the historic and the modern, which would have made it possible for the National Gallery to stay and thrive at the site.
The renovated courtyard at Devon House, as photographed on 29 December 2022 (photo: Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)
Work in progress, Devon House Courtyard, as photographed on 29 December 2022 (photo: Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)
The production team at work on Ebony G. Patterson’s installation in the Devon House Ballroom, 2014 Jamaica Biennial (all rights reserved)
In 1982, however, the National Gallery was abruptly removed to its current premises in the Roy West Building on the Kingston Waterfront, on what was initially a five-year lease with UDC and until a permanent, state-of-the-art building was constructed, although the latter has failed to materialize. Some observers felt that the relocation was a politically partisan move in the wake of the 1980 general elections, as the National Gallery was regarded as a “Manley project” and Devon House, a “Seaga project,” which thus had to be reclaimed.
For the National Gallery the relocation was a mixed blessing. The additional space and modern, climate-conditioned facilities allowed for an expansion of the temporary and permanent exhibitions, and the scope and ambition of the National Gallery’s programmes grew accordingly. The National Gallery, however, also lost the income from the retail and restaurant spaces at Devon House and foot traffic dropped significantly, as the symbolic social boundaries for visitors, ironically, increased. The bunker-like “white cube” space of its new Waterfront location was far less inviting of inclusion than Devon House.
The Kingston Waterfront redevelopment in the 1960s had been another problematic episode in Jamaica’s urban development which had arguably ripped the heart out of what was once a very lively harbour and market district, replacing it with a rather soulless modernist business district. The demolition of the historic Victoria Craft Market, which had interesting architectural features, and the nearby Myrtle Bank hotel were critical mistakes from which the area has never fully recovered. It will be interesting to see whether the current redevelopment initiatives in Downtown Kingston can undo some of that damage.
The National Gallery never fully severed its ties with Devon House and a number of works of art from its collection are on permanent loan to the house and on display there. In 2014, when I was executive director from the National Gallery, we received permission to use Devon House as one of the venues for the rebranded 2014 Jamaica Biennial. It was an appropriate “homecoming” during the National Gallery’s fortieth anniversary, which was supported by the efforts of Devon House’s board and management at that time to feature more art at the site. We selected works and installation proposals that would intervene in various ways with the history, significance and ambiance of the house. Devon House also served as a satellite site for the 2017 Jamaica Biennial site, using a similar curatorial approach. The two biennial exhibitions at Devon House were among the most exciting and successful curatorial projects I have worked on, and they were very well received as such by the public. It is a pity that this mutually beneficial collaboration with Devon House has been scrapped in the scaled-down successor of the Jamaica Biennial, the Kingston Biennial.
There obviously needs to be a bigger conversation about what Devon House represents and how the site (and other heritage sites in Jamaica) can be more appropriately managed and used. If anything, and providing the authorities become less defensive, I hope that the present controversy will open the door for those conversations. Until then, I cannot help but muse about what could have been if the National Gallery had been able to stay at Devon House and develop there. Perhaps it would have been a better use of the site than its current “venue-ization”, to borrow Diana Macauley’s term.
Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. The second, revised and expanded edition of her best-known book “Caribbean Art” was recently published in the World of Art series of Thames and Hudson. Her personal blog can be found at veerlepoupeye.com.