Charles Lloyd Tucker was Bermuda’s first black professionally-trained artist and a dominant figure on the art scene during the 1950s and 1960s. As the first art teacher at Berkeley Institute, he inspired a generation of Bermudians. Some, among them Chesley Trott and Elizabeth Ann Trott, became artists themselves. Others attribute their life-long appreciation of art to his influence.
Tucker’s larger-than-life personality matched his prodigious talents. Music was his first love, and he had embarked on studies in London to become a concert pianist, but the Second World War ended that dream.
Tucker was one of eight children born to Ada Louise (Steede) and John Edgar Tucker, a community leader, mason and builder. Only three of the Tucker children lived to adulthood. Bernie, a carriage driver, outlived Tucker. Older brother Leroy was a law student when he died.
Tucker was born in Shelly Bay and raised in the family home Rocklands, which stood on a two-acre property overlooking Harrington Sound that had been in his mother’s family for several generations.
His lifelong devotion to his mother, an elegant woman who loved to wear hats, may have had its roots in their shared music talents. She played the organ and guitar and taught him to play the pump organ. He studied piano from the age of seven.
Tucker attended Temperance Hall primary school, in Hamilton Parish, Mrs. Millicent Neverson’s Excelsior Secondary School and The Berkeley Institute, where he graduated in 1933.
It’s not known how he spent the next four years, but it’s reasonable to assume that he got a job. He came of age in a society where most people left school at age 13, and was age 20 when he passed out of Berkeley.
Only a small number of whites and even fewer black Bermudians continued on to high school, relative to the larger contingent that entered the work force straight from primary school. In Bermuda’s hodgepodge education system, where the age span of students in one class could be as much as four years, Tucker’s advanced age as a high school leaver was not usual either.
Four years after leaving Berkeley, in December 1937, he sailed to England to study music at the Guildhall School of Music and Dramatic Art, arriving on New Year’s Day 1938. Tucker’s studies were cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1939, he sailed back home.
The winds of war were hovering over Bermuda as well. The island was in no danger from enemy bombing raids, which were wreaking havoc in Britain, but with German U-boats trawling the north and south Atlantic, the island was soon pressed into service. Two US bases were built in Bermuda, beginning in 1941.
Construction of bases in Southampton and St. David’s created a booming economy and numerous opportunities for Bermudian workers. Tucker was not an indolent man.
He gave private music lessons, played piano in hotels, played the organ at the base chapel in St. David’s, was a hotel steward and Base watchman. American servicemen whom he befriended were surprised to discover his “hidden talent” in music.
Bill Wagner, a member of the dredging crew at the Southampton base, met Tucker, when he was working for the base as watchman at Hen Island, St. George’s. Wagner would later write that Tucker’s “big hands brought out Chopin like I had never heard before”.
When the war ended in 1945, Tucker considered himself too old to resume his music studies, but by then he had begun to dabble in painting. Wagner was his art mentor. “Bill, unquestionably gave me a priceless giftmy first real interest in art, not as a spectator, but as a participant,” Tucker told Preview magazine in March 1961. “I like to think I returned in kind by deepening his appreciation of music.”
An American couple, Albert Rosen and his wife, whom he met while playing piano on the hotel circuit, were impressed by his artistic talents. They had contacts that led him to art school.
In 1948, he returned to England, this time to study graphic arts at the Anglo-French Art Centre. Acting on another artist’s recommendation, he transferred to the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting, where he studied from January 1949 to 1953.
For about a year, he roomed with law student and future Barbados prime minister Errol Barrow and his wife, an actress and fashion designer, in their large garden apartment on the edge of Hampstead Heath, London.
Tucker soaked up the culture of England and Europe: he visited art galleries and roamed landmarks from Kew Gardens to the London docks, sketchbook in hand.
He also made money on the side, playing piano in clubs and selling his own artwork including Christmas cards of Bermuda scenes, which financed trips to Europe. He studied woodcarving during his first summer in Europe. On a subsequent trip, he studied watercolours with the German painter, Hans Hermann Hagedorn (1913-1998).
Because of his talents, personality and interest in history and drama, he held his own at art school, even though he was the only black student, and many students were from wealthy families. He was the life and soul of school parties.
He painted landscapes and people, but his life-long passion for painting flowers was recognised early. In 1953, he won the school’s Flower Painting Prize. He was also the recipient of Byam Shaw’s Ernest Jackson Memorial Scholarship, which was awarded to an outstanding student. It covered the cost of his tuition for the 1952-53 school year. In 1953, he assisted with the painting of a mural at the Bishop of London’s private chapel at Fulham Palace.
Art studies completed, he returned to Bermuda in September 1953 and set about establishing his career. In 1954, the year he began teaching at Berkeley Institute, he had a one-man show. He taught at Berkeley until 1959, and resumed teaching there in 1963, where he remained until his death.
Teaching provided Tucker with a steady income, and the financial freedom to develop as an artist outside of the classroom.
He was an active participant in the artistic community, and was a founding member of the Bermuda Society of Arts, which formed in 1956 with an integrated membershipan indication that artists were leading the way in race relations. He exhibited locally and also in New York, Boston and Chicago, and juried several BSA exhibitions.
Tucker’s friendships spanned Bermuda’s racial divide. Artist Robert Barritt, a white Bermudian, became his best friend, his best man and his son’s godfather. Tucker exhibited with Barritt and a host of other leading white artists of the day, among them John Kaufmann, Alfred Birdsey, Florence Fish and Canadian-born sculptor Byllee Lang, who lived in Bermuda for 20 years and whose studio was a gathering place for any and everyone involved in the arts.
When Lang died suddenly of heart attack in 1966, Tucker would be a pallbearer at her funeral.
Tucker was a prolific painter, who worked mainly in watercolours and pen and ink, but also in oils.
He painted landscapes, street scenes and Bermuda landmarks, and well-known Bermudian characters of his day, including Weatherbird, a street person. He travelled frequently to exhibit and for further study, and his work was constantly evolving.
A trip to Haiti in 1956 became a major influence on both his paintings and woodcarvings. Up to then, he had been heavily influenced by the European masters, especially the French Impressionists.
Five years later, he was in the Caribbean again, this time, doing a lecture tour under the auspices of the University of the West Indies.
Tucker was also one of the first Bermudians to venture into political art. “Storm in a Teacup”, painted in a modernist style that was not typical of his work, was inspired by the 1959 Theatre Boycott, which ended segregation in cinemas and hotels.
The following year, the Bermuda Bar Association presented departing chief justice Sir Newnham Worley, with a Tucker paintingan indication of his artistic standing within the white establishment, and also of the changing times.
Tucker built his house and art studio Morrox on family property, where he gardened, raised bees, entertained people from all walks of lifehe was a great cookand gave private art lessons.
Tourists and local art lovers beat a path to his door to buy his paintings. One day a young woman named Sarah Theresa Jackson visited his studio with her mother.
After a year’s courtship, they were married on June 29, 1963 in an outdoor ceremony amid the terraced rock gardens Tucker had built himself. Hundreds attended the wedding that offered a glimpse into Bermuda’s political future. Future premier John Swan was in the wedding party. Best man Robert Barritt would serve in the Swan cabinet.
Tucker was living with his motherwhose portrait he captured in his 1958 oil “Mother”at the time of his marriage and Theresa became part of the household. The couple had two children, Hans, named after watercolourist Hans Hagedorn and Sarah-Anne.
For the deeply religious Theresa, it was the start of an exciting life. Tucker was a weekly fixture at Pembroke Princess, where he sold paintings to guests every week, his wife often by his side. He also taught at the prisons.
Music remained an integral part of his life. He played piano at his family church, Bethel AME Church, which is a stone’s throw away from his home. The church often had socials on the grounds of his property.
In 1970, Tucker was awarded the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Less than a year later, he was dead.
His sudden death in 1971 of a heart attack was a shock to the community. His death and funeral were front-page news. Berkeley headmaster F.S. Furbert said at his packed funeral at Bethel: “Here lies a man who walked with kings and never lost the common touch with those with whom he was familiar.” Fittingly for a man who loved to paint flowers, his casket was covered with yellow roses.
Archdeacon Jack Cattell, who presided over his burial at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Hamilton Parish, said: “I always think of Charles Tucker as standing like a colossus across the artificial man-made barriers of race and society. He was at home with all kinds of peopleold and young, black and white.”
His mother Ada, who had been long widowed, died the same year and his widow was left to raise their two children alone.
Tucker was a pioneer who paved the way for countless black Bermudian artists. He had demonstrated that white artists, whether local or visiting North Americans, did not have a monopoly on the island’s aesthetics.
Tucker left behind a treasure trove of work, which can be found in private and gallery collections, and also at Morrox, where his family keeps his legacy alive.