BESSIE ELIZA BROWNLOW GRAY (1854-1925) was a native Bermudian watercolorist, illustrator, and poet who, along with Susan Frith, May Middleton, and Kate and Ethel Tucker, was among the first group of women on the island to attain recognition in the arts. Though clearly painting at a professional level, with a concentration on floral and rural landscape watercolors, Gray was very much a representative of the Victorian era’s tradition of the “genteel amateur” (she is not believed to have sold any of her easel-works during her lifetime), preferring instead to donate her pictures to charity or be given away as gifts. In the aftermath of her death, the March 2, 1925 edition of the Royal Gazette stated that “her great talents were never once used for personal ends...her innate modesty prevented her from doing so.”
Born into a prominent family in 1854, Gray was the daughter of Bermuda’s Chief Justice Sir Samuel Brownlow Gray and Eliza Anne Trimingham Gray. No clear record exists of her being formally trained as a painter, but it is possible that she was tutored by Edward James (1820-1877), a British artist who came to renown on the island during the American Civil War for his maritime-themed watercolors, and whose undated painting, Overland Views Looking Towards Hamilton Harbor, depicts a sketching or painting party on the lawn of either “Claremont,” Gray’s parents’ house, or “Wentworth,” Gray’s own house next door. (An exhibition featuring James’ work, Man of Mystery: The Artwork of Edward James, was held at the Bermuda National Gallery from October, 2001 to January, 2002.) Anecdotal family history suggests that Gray was also mentored by the aforementioned Susan Frith (1843-1925), another of the island’s female pioneers in the arts. (She was born in Barbados to Bermudian parents.) Frith, who was ten years Gray’s senior and who resided near Gray, won a number of prizes for her watercolors in the art section of the annual Bermuda Agricultural Exhibitions of the 1890s, and contributed several landscapes to a show at St. George’s Town Hall in late February, 1889 which were praised in the March 5, 1889 edition of The Royal Gazette as being “excellent in color.” Though her work is seldom found in today’s commercial marketplace, she is regarded by art historians as being one of Bermuda’s earliest practitioners of art at a high level. On firmer historical footing is Gray’s association with the American architect/artist Samuel Wakeman Andrews (1866-1935) who, according to the Bermuda National Gallery, was a painting companion of Gray’s. Andrews, who first visited the island in 1914 and was a regular winter visitor until his death in 1935, was a notable contributor to the annual Bermuda Art Exhibitions from 1928 onwards (the April, 1933 edition of The Bermudian observed that “his work’s sincerity and warmth imply a deep love of Bermuda”), and his painting of a cottage at Harrington Sound was considered to be one of the finest works displayed at the 1929 Exhibition. He also had a joint show with Clark Voorhees at the English-Speaking Union in 1925, and participated in a joint exhibition with Norman Black, Toby Darrell, and Francis Getty at The Book Store on Reid Street, Hamilton in 1935.
Irrespective of the extent of her formal training, Bessie Gray was active as an artist from a young age, and continued to paint until at least 1920. (A 1920 watercolor of the rocks between Castle Island and Tucker’s Town, in which she adopted a bolder, slightly Fauvist palette, is known to exist.) She is believed to have left Bermuda only once, for a two-year period (dates unrecorded), in which she visited London, Venice, and Rome, where she was afforded the opportunity to examine the art treasures housed in the museums and collections of those cities. One of her earliest-dated paintings is an 1890 view of Devonshire Dock. Two pictures from 1893 are also known: one being a view of Flatts Bridge, and the other seemingly of “Inglesea” in Paget. Other notable works of hers include Waterville, Paget, ’96; a 1901 watercolor of a racing-dinghy (which was illustrated in the August, 1937 edition of The Bermudian); a 1910 picture of a woman and child walking on the quiet road near Pembroke Hall; a view of the back quarters of “Verdmont” in Smith’s Parish; her Hamilton Harbor scene Yacht “Lysistrata” Coaling; and an undated picture of the ruinous gateposts at Castle Island. Two sketches adorned with art-nouveau stylings are also known: one depicting the Great Sound, and another combining a house with a sprig of wild fennels (both perhaps intended as accompaniments for her poems). The February 6, 1896 issue of The American Stationer magazine describes some of her work as an illustrator: “The Message of the Lilies” is a booklet by Bessie Gray, as are also the Morning Glory andThe Flower Beautiful, all of which display the most beautiful and gorgeous floral work... these gems of the floral kingdom are shown in all of the finery of their natural colors, the latter being devoted particularly to sketches of the “Passion Flower,” which is put before the country in all the richness of its native attire. The same author and artist contributes Lily Bells and Violets, in which the pages of the books are enriched by the flowers named.” Her floral work was so highly respected that Louis Prang, inventor of the “Christmas card” and the “business card,” and one of the foremost lithographers and publishers of the second half of the 19th century, lithographed a series of her Bermuda flowers.
Gray’s paintings were standout additions to the art sections of the island’s Agricultural Exhibitions of the 1890s. She was awarded first prize in the watercolor landscape category in the 1893 and 1896 shows. The May 6, 1902 supplemental edition of the Royal Gazette was complementary of several of her watercolors included in the 1902 Exhibition, singling out one of them as “a handsome picture of flowers.” Her work continued to play a prominent role in that yearly event through much of the early 1900s, winning prizes for both oils and watercolors. In both 1913 and 1914 she was awarded 2nd prize in the watercolor category at the Bermuda Arts and Crafts Association’s Exhibition, and earned a special prize in that show’s 1914 competition for the best group of four landscapes. She also received the honor of having several of her pictures loaned to Bermuda’s Trade Development Board for display at the Bermuda Pavilion (a replica of Walsingham House at Castle Harbour) at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, London. Sadly, the vessel containing the Bermudian artwork on loan to this exhibition (the S.S. Backworth) suffered a collision en route back to Bermuda, with much of the artwork ruined in the ensuing flood of the hold.
During her lifetime Gray donated many of her paintings to various charitable events and causes. In February, 1889 she donated several pictures to a charity fair at “Pembroke Hall” to benefit the restoration fund for Hamilton’s Trinity Church (later Cathedral). She donated an additional 79 paintings to an Art Sale and Fancy Fair that she herself organized in March, 1890 at the Masonic Hall, Hamilton, to raise additional funds for the same cause. In 1900 she was one of several local women (including Susan Frith) to donate watercolors to a charity bazaar in St. George’s whose purpose was to benefit the widows and orphans of the war in South Africa. A posthumous charity event, Exhibition of Pictures by the late Miss Bessie Gray was held in 1926 at her former home, “Wentworth” in Paget.
Additionally, she was the honorary secretary/treasurer of the “Women’s Work Exchange,” an organization run by the aforementioned Bermudian sisters Kate and Ethel Tucker “for the purpose of assisting women to dispose of their work quietly and advantageously.”
Gray’s artistry was not limited to painting and illustrating. She was also an accomplished poet whose work was published in various forms and venues. Beginning in 1892, many of her poetical works, illustrated with her own floral or other watercolors, were published by Taber-Prang of Boston in booklet form; more than twenty of her various illustrated calendars and verse-books were eventually published by Taber-Prang. In 1893, her poetry collection, Bermuda in June,was published by Boston’s L. Prang and Co., and her 1927 book of poetry, A Bermuda Garden of Song, was published posthumously by Marshall Jones and Co. of Boston. The latter collection contains many poems about the death of one of her sisters. (Gray had four siblings.) Her poetry was also published in Munsey’s Magazine, Scribner’s Magazine, andBermuda in Poetry. However, she is perhaps most famous poetically for her Boer-War era “Keepers of the Western Gate,” which, retitled “Song of the Bermudians” and set to music by Lord Frederick Hamilton, was published in London by Novello and Co. in 1913.
Bessie Gray died in 1925 following a long and painful illness. The final lines of one of her poems provide a fitting epitaph:
“Well I will grant thee my richest grace
“Sunshine to make in each “shady place”!”
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