A motor cyclist one day travelling along the East Coast road suddenly stopped, as he found that his vehicle was not behaving as it should. It was one of those machines whose chief attraction was that when new, it moved along with barely a whisper to warn of its approach. Moreover, this particular machine was one of a new type, of which only two were brought to the country, and the manufacturers were totally unaware that this particular brain-child of theirs, had run amok, and was giving it’s owner no end of trouble. He recognised all the symptoms of another breakdown, to be ritually followed by a good twenty minutes of bashing and begging, sweating and blue-swearing, before the wicked djinn, which inhabited the bowels of the bike would consent to let the traveller continue on his way. As he stood there pulling this gear lever, and fiddling with that carburettor — priming-button, easing the pressure on this pedal and increasing it on that one, getting sweatier, and redder and angrier by the second, he heard a push-bike coming up the road towards him. As it passed by, a voice called out to him. soft and solicitous in the dust and livid glare of that East Coast road, “Boss! that not paint brush you know.” The cyclist was an Indian peasant farmer on his way to work, and the motor-cyclist was E. R. Burrowes, the painter.
Burrowes was at the time employed in what was then the Education Department of the Colony of British Guiana. No one thought that there was anything ridiculous about our most distinguished artist being employed to chivvy along truants and delinquents, whilst astride this mechanical caitiff of his, which seemed bent on doing him a serious injury. All this is to be read into the old farmer’s remark in which Burrowes himself would claim to see only humour. To many of us who were members of his famous Working People’s Art Class, this was yet another illustration of the fact that in the minds of most people in the country, the activity called “Art” was inextricably linked with the name of Burrowes.
One night during a vaudeville show, a comedian, Sam Chase no less, turned to his feed-man Ted Roy, and said,
“Hi man Ted! you know somet’ing. Burrowes is the greatest artis’ in the whole country here.”
Ted replied: “You stupid or what Sam? Don’t you know that Basil Hinds is the best draw man in the whole world?”
Sam disagreed, and, with much gesticulation Ted explained,
“Look Sam, I see Hinds take a piece of canvas and paint a bone on it, an’ a dog come an eat half the canvas before e’ realise was canvas and not real bone”.
Sam laughed and replied, “Man, that en’ nothing at all. One day Burrowes take a piece o’cork. and paint it jus like a piece o’ marblestone, and when e’ throw it in the water, it sink.”
There were huge roars of laughter from the entire audience. The joke had probably been told many, many times before Sam gave it to his audience, but it had an extra dimension of value for them; it was another incident from the Burrowes legend, a story about their artist. During the disturbances in 1963 and 1964, unlike most people, Burrowes went about as usual, without fear of being molested. On one occasion, as he bicycled past a group of angry “squatters”, one of them shouted out to him what sounded like a very derogatory remark. Before he could even think of replying, he heard several voices rebuking the speaker saying, “Don’t trouble that man you hear! he is we Art-Master.” There could be no mistaking it. Though there were other interesting artists at work, Burrowes was Art, and Art was Burrowes.
Up to the period of the second world war. and especially before the first world war, Guyanese society was remarkable, in that the social relationships, the peculiar class-caste distinctions which obtained in the “Mother Country”, were reproduced to a marked degree of accuracy in this over sea colony of hers. Obvious dissimilarities were caused by the presence of different racial types, and this gave a unique flavour and style to social relationships in Guyana. According to Burrowes, you were classified according to the degree of dirt you accumulated in doing your work. For instance, a tailor was a little above a shoemaker, and a little below a Water Street clerk, but so far as the ruling expatriate class was concerned, the whole boiling of black and half-white natives was irretrievably declassed, and E. R. Burrowes was a tailor. However, Burrowes was a tailor, very different from the rest.
As a young boy he was extremely precocious and possessed a highly tenacious memory. His foster-father had left him, as his only legacy, a large library and by the time Burrowes was 15 years old, he had completed reading, among other things, all the works of Dickens. Shakespear, Scott, Dumas, and the Dore illustrated bible from cover to cover. Somewhere in the teeming lock-up of his imagination, the pictures he had seen, the stories he had, read jelled into a potent mystique, and Burrowes the artist was born. In that dark impound, Guyana before the awakening, a hole-in of ex-slaves, ex-slave drivers, sharp merchants from Europe and mal-nourished fugitives from that murderous poverty in the East, a miracle happened. Burrowes, the little tailor’s apprentice wanted to produce works of Art. As Martin Carter has said, it was a phenomenon that he should want to paint at all, and even more phenomenal that he and a few others actually did.
From his school days, he was known as “Sculptor”, the boy who painted and carved, and made things out of cloth and wood and mud. His foster mother was a strict, rigid woman; a member of the Plymouth Brethren sect, who, though she loved him to a fault, was most hostile to his ambitions of becoming a painter. When Burrowes was seven years old, his foster-father died, and two years later his foster-mother was successfully and triumphantly swindled by her business manager who left her with barely a pittance to live on. Burrowes who had previously had a servant and a room of his own, now had to give up all thoughts of a University career in Law. He continued to go to an ordinary primary school and was later sent to learn the trade of tailoring. His step-mother could see nothing useful in the business of painting pictures, and as fast as he brought his painting things back into the house, she threw them out of the window again. She was eventually won over, when she discovered that through Art, even in Guyana, one could acquire a certain amount of respect and honour from one’s countrymen, for her son had scored a signal triumph.
He was on good terms with an elderly woman who made artificial flowers out of crepe paper. He would get scraps of this paper from her and steep them in hot water to get out the coloured dyes. These he kept in small bottles. Later as an apprentice, he would add crushed coloured tailor’s chalk to these dyes to make a more substantial kind of paint. He would paint on scraps of paper, and cardboard; shirt boxes and shoe boxes were highly prized, and kept for special work. The wife of an English doctor, herself a professional water-colourist, saw the young lad at work one day in the street and invited him in so that she could see his work. She was very impressed with the painting he was doing and promptly bought it for the huge sum of seven shillings and six pence. Sometime later when she was holding a private showing of her own work she invited him to exhibit some of his pieces alongside of hers. In the context of the incipient apartheid which Guyana shared with other British Colonies at the time, this was a remarkable occurrence indeed, and only the high quality of the work of the young artist could be put forward as the reason for this happening.
Most of Burrowes’ colleagues and students would agree with A. J. Seymour that, “…….. Burrowes’ special gift has been to impart enthusiasm and technique, to the many young people he has taught…..”. Technically, he has experimented with balata, buckram, tailor’s canvas, rice bag, bitumen, concrete, and several highly unorthodox materials such as clay mixed with molasses.
The great thing about Burrowes as an artist is that most of his life was spent in this kind of technical exploration, and this, added to his activities as a teacher, was very largely responsible for the breaking of ground in a new area, which paved the way for a higher degree of public tolerance and patronage that the present generation of artists is now enjoying.
He and his colleagues, Hubert Moshett, Sam Cummings, Guy Sharpies, were true pioneers. Between them they invented the Guyanese Landscape; old Dutch Kokers, red roads, the decaying slave logies which were still being used on the sugar estates, the masquerade dancers, Christmas revellers, woodmen on the rivers and the people of the markets. Because of his greater understanding of his subjects, his more profound human compassion which extended to dogs, cats, and trees, Burrowes’ work was more successful than that of his contemporaries. His paintings (with permission we disregard his numerous bread-and-butter pictures) are always human statements, and at the very best, far exceed in artistic merit, the pictorial cookery and chromatic purgatives some of the present generation of artists and would-be artists indulge in.
Today he is still teaching, and one can confidently expect that in another decade or so, at least one of his present pupils will be an important contributor to the art of that generation. It is very sad indeed that his best work is not now to be seen in Guyana. Two pieces that were recently in Public collections have been stolen, and there is nothing extant to which one can point to substantiate the claim that his stature as an artist is a fact and not a myth.
As a young man he was almost without fear, never lost an opportunity to fight for what he felt was the honour and dignity of art and artists. His personality, his lessons in school, that old brown coat of his, dark leather inevitably on the elbows and cuff’s, his pipe reeking of an evil smelling mixture called “Brazilian,” ($1.20 cents per quarter during the general strike), and above all his pictures had the unique signature of distinction and merit.
E. R. Burrowes! He brought me up by hand.