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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Richard Gui Sharples - magistrate, artist and bon vivant: A centenary tribute

Richard Gui Sharples - magistrate, artist and bon vivant: A centenary tribute
Richard Gui Sharples as a young man


May Day, 2006, marked the centenary of the birth of Gui Sharples, a man who demonstrated a wealth of talents. He is to be remembered for his charismatic personality and outstanding quality as a magistrate, artist and citizen.

Richard Gui Pennington Sharples was born in Georgetown on May 1, 1906. He was the son of Mary Johanna (nee) Scott and John Bradshaw Sharples. Gui's father was an architect and builder, the foremost exponent of vernacular architectural design in his day, whose work was recognisable from his style of ironwork, fretted gables and carved doors. This style was probably also reminiscent of the chalets in Switzerland where he was married in 1885.

Gui was the youngest sibling of that indomitable Sharples generation. His elder brothers included magistrate OEL Sharples; medical practitioners LR (Jack) Sharples and EM (Peter) Sharples; Registrar of Deeds J B (Bill) Sharples; and sisters Eloise Sharples, the first woman to serve as Librarian at the Reading Rooms of the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society (RA&CS) in Georgetown, and Waveney Sharples, Guider and Brown Owl. His uncle was Daniel Sharples, the redoubtable headmaster, renowned for his academic rigour and strict discipline.

Gui's early education began at the Ursuline Convent and Queen's College, and he later went on to study law in London.

Midday - water colour by R G Sharples circa 1950

On his return to Guyana he became a solicitor, having been articled to the law practice of S L Van B Stafford. He became Treasurer of the British Guiana Law Society in 1943. He was later appointed a magistrate and first sat on the Bench in 1948, serving in various judicial districts of the country including Buxton and Bartica and as Police Magistrate.

During 1954 he acted as Official Receiver and Public Trustee. He also performed the duties of Rent Assessor and was appointed Chairman of the British Guiana Rent Restriction Committee in 1955, which investigated the conditions of employment of various categories of workers in Guyana. The concluding report made recommendations calling for all-round increases in the minimum wage.

R G Sharples' career as a magistrate became inextricably linked with Guyana's political history and the struggle for self-government in the period after the constitution was suspended in 1953, ousting the then PPP government. The details of this period of Guyana's history are well documented elsewhere. Suffice it to mention that Dr Cheddi Jagan had been arrested and charged on April 3, 1954 for breaking the restriction order placed on civil disobedience demonstrations. Dr Jagan appeared before Magistrate Gui Sharples and refused to put up a defence. Sharples sentenced Dr Jagan to six months' imprisonment with hard labour, a sentence deemed to be controversial at the time.

Alongside his legal career, Richard Gui Sharples is recognised equally for his artistic legacy and his contribution to the development of a 'local style' in the history of fine art in Guyana. Gui was actively involved in the main current of art in the decades leading up to Guyana's independence. He was a member of The British Guiana Arts & Crafts Society, formed in 1931, and was President of the Guyanese Art Group which succeeded the Arts & Crafts Society in 1945.

He associated with a nucleus of talented local artists working primarily in landscape and portraiture. His peers and contemporaries, all locally trained, also later achieved national recognition as artists, and this showed the wealth of talent existing in the 1930s and 1940s. Those contemporaries included Vivian Antrobus, Reginald Phang, E R Burrowes, Basil Hinds, Denis Williams and Hubert Moshett.

The Art Group set out to foster the appreciation of art and set goals for assisting young, upcoming artists of the succeeding generation who later pursued their art studies in Europe. Among these were such talents as Aubrey Williams, Stanley Greaves and Marjorie Broodhagen. Along with E R Burrowes, R G Sharples was also a member of the RA&CS Exhibition Committee up to 1956.

From an early age Gui Sharples displayed a flair for painting, and continued his hobby when he returned to Guyana after law studies in England. The majority of Gui's paintings were worked up from pencil sketches done in situ. Sometimes he would set out on expeditions to capture a particular scene, but it was mostly his sheer spontaneity that produced the water colour paintings, and this technique became his preferred medium of expression.

His subject matter was primarily scenery with trees and human figures. Trees became an important feature in all his water colour landscapes - sturdy gnarled trunks crowned with feathery foliage and lithe abstract figures conveying a sense of belonging to the landscapes in which they appear. This genre of painting, particularly scenes with flamboyant trees, was sought after by Guyanese and expatriates going abroad; hence most of R G Sharples' artistic output ended up with private collectors overseas. His art also came in handy as wedding gifts for his friends.

The Centenary History and Handbook of British Guiana 1831-1931 by ARF Webber published in 1931, brought R G Sharples' name to prominence when six of his watercolour paintings were selected for colour illustrations in the work. The watercolour plates vividly portray local themes and locations which are evocative of Guyana's coastal topography. The wonderful opalescent atmosphere of the tropical landscape is captured with ordinary men and women working amid lush green foliage and scarlet blooms, or the reflected light from azure skies on waterways and rivers.

Besides his water colour painting, he readily turned his creative skills to other design activities. He experimented with fabric painting, producing designs in oils on a satin evening dress for his wife, Winifred, as well as water colour panels which she then inserted into a black dress. His daughters too were delighted with their hand-painted organdie dresses. In the mid-1940s Gui was asked to paint scenery on the pivoting panels of the stage wings in the auditorium at the Ursuline Convent; these murals were in existence well into the 1970s. He also made and painted the large 'Serviam' shield (the emblem and motto of St Rose's High School) which hung at the back of the auditorium.

The Rev Richard Lester Guilly, SJ, was appointed Catholic Bishop of Georgetown in February 1956 and later enthroned on July 22, 1956. This necessitated the design of a coat of arms which Bishop Guilly asked Gui to undertake. A book of heraldry was consulted, and the coat of arms duly designed and presented to the Rt Rev Guilly who was pleased with the end result.

In the early 1950s Gui entered a design competition for new stamps for the country. One of the designs chosen was the 72 cents stamp with a carmine and emerald illustration of the Arapaima fish, the largest fresh-water fish in the world. This 1954 stamp set, released on December 1, 1954, was the last definitive issue of British Guiana stamps, and was the first to carry the profile of Queen Elizabeth II along with the country's buildings, industry,

flora and fauna. This was probably the last flourish in British Guiana's rich philatelic history.

Although Gui Sharples remained an amateur artist, he secured sales for his paintings at local exhibitions. In the 1950s Alcan Aluminium of Canada put on a travelling exhibition of West Indian art, and several of his water colours were chosen for this. Some were sold as a result of the exhibition, but unfortunately three paintings went missing. In 1953 his work was exhibited at The Guyanese Art Group exhibition. In June 1957 a posthumous exhibition of his paintings was held in the RA&CS Reading Rooms in Georgetown.

The Joint Art Committee of the RA&CS (1944-1948), which was set up for the purpose of forming a nucleus of the British Guiana National Art Collection, purchased three of R G Sharples' paintings for the nation - The Quarry (1947); Bartica Afternoon (1946), a backyard scene in soft pastel water colours of muted greens and browns; and The Tamarind 1947, a landscape in warm russet tones in which relaxed figures rest beneath the shade of a tamarind tree. These works are now in the Guyana National Art Collection and exhibited in the galleries at Castellani House and the Guyana Museum.*

The news of Gui Sharples' untimely death on August 26, 1956 came as a great shock to his family, close friends and legal colleagues. He was only 50 years of age and left behind a widow and four children. At the time he was on vacation with his wife, Winifred, in London. When the news reached the city courts in Guyana, there was an immediate adjournment by magistrates.

Besides his legal career and love of painting, Gui had the capacity to enjoy the good life to the full - even as the Bohemian artist. He was a larger than life personality in every sense; he was a giant of a man and could turn his hands to anything, being equally happy under the bonnet of an old car, fishing, or ballroom dancing. He was also caught up in amateur theatricals with Dr Fred Rose and his group, and undertook singing roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Those who still remember him can fondly relate anecdotes about his hearty laughter, his pumpkin-coloured Citroen car and his huge capacity for jugs of lemonade.

My thanks to Penelope Sharples-Eamans for sharing some reminiscences of her late father; Michael Sharples for his contribution (below) and Elfrieda Bissember, Castellani House, for her helpful comments.

Gui Remembered

A postscript by Michael Sharples

This year marks the centenary of Gui's birth, and I am sure that in the light of these celebrations there was an unconscious urge on my part to recall and write about those journeys to Bartica and his involvement in them.

My first visit to Bartica in the early fifties came about when my uncle, the late Gui Sharples, was itinerant magistrate for the Essequibo region. The August school holidays had enabled me to join him and most of the family at their official government residence situated at the point near where the Mazaurini River meets the Essequibo.

Our stay there was notable for the many journeys by launch up the rivers and a gruelling trip up the potholed Potaro road. A great deal of time was taken up with fishing on the river near the residence - cartabac, a fairly large freshwater fish, was the prize catch then and a favourite for dinner. In my mind's eye I can still recall Gui, a giant of a man, sitting by the riverside, bespectacled, with gritted teeth and clutching a fishing rod bent in an arc, and my two cousins nearby shouting in unison, "Cartaback... cartaback boy!" That part of the river was also suitable for swimming at high water. It was the memory of my time spent there that made me look forward to the journey back to Bartica.

My later 1956 trip, however, was rendered somewhat poignant by the fact that whilst there in August of that year the shocking news came through that Gui had collapsed and died while on holiday in England. The news spread like wildfire in Bartica where he had become widely known and respected. Uncle Gui was only 50 years of age when he died.

In addition to his magisterial role he had become one of the country's finest painters. One of his best works was centred on Bartica but I cannot recall whether this painting was done at the time of my original visit to the town or at an earlier or later occasion. At this time of my stay with the family I can recall that the official residence was situated within easy reach of the main abattoir - not a setting he would have chosen for a painting even taking into account his impish sense of humour!

This side of his character could also be seen in his frequent habit of pouring liquid straight down his throat from a decanter held at some distance above. He would take great delight in performing this rare feat whenever there was an audience around to appreciate it.

He would shake and laugh uncontrollably when telling friends about some amusing court case over which he had presided, especially when it involved proof of paternity! Strange as it may seem for a man brought up in the law he was also an expert in the caponising of chickens.

* R G Sharples' paintings can be seen as part of an exhibition of Guyanese Art which opens this month at the National Gallery, Castellani House, Georgetown.

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