Américas / October 2009
An grand old plantation house that hosted meetings of the Barbados Legislature back in the early 1700s and later was nearly destroyed by a hurricane has been given a new lease on life as one of the eastern Caribbean's most prestigious art galleries.
The Gallery at Lancaster Great House is located in the parish of St. James, north of Bridgetown, the capital of 166-square-mile Barbados.
Lancaster's modern-day savior is Roger Chubb, a former director of the London auction house Sotheby's who has been living in Barbados for the last 15 years.
"This building belongs to an English couple, Sir Martyn and Lady Sally Arbib," Chubb told Américas during a recent tour of the grounds. "They bought the property in 1999 with the intention of creating a center for the arts in Barbados. For various legal reasons, that didn't happen. So they asked me to orchestrate a number of charitable events using this house. That's how this whole organization evolved."
The building's foundations were constructed around 1780, said Chubb. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Lancaster House sat in the middle of a prosperous 484-acre sugar plantation that employed as many as 232 slaves. It was badly damaged in the hurricane of 1831 when the third story was blown off.
Since then, it's been sold numerous times to satisfy debts. And its grounds have shrunk to three and a half acres, which will soon become a golf courrse.
"That's fine by me, because that way it stays green and won't be developed," said Chubb, 66, who before coming to Barbados restored Sutton Place, a 775-acre Tudor estate, for Stanley Seeger and helped the reclusive American multi-millionaire get his art collection together. "What I find really appalling is the mass of high-density holiday developments in Barbados, which do very little for the island's economy."
Chubb said his company, Belvedere Consultants Ltd., leases the property from the Arbibs, who generously pay for the upkeep of the building itself as well as the grounds. The price tag for restoring Lancaster House to its former grandeur was around $250,000, and it costs just $500 a day to keep it open.
"I would like it to become a major tourist attraction," said Chubb, noting that several key historical sites are located within only a few miles of Lancaster, including St. James's Church, St. Nicholas Abbey and Arlington House in Speightstown.
For years, Farley Hill was the largest and grandest plantation house in Barbados. Dating from 1680 and substantially enlarged in the mid-19th century, it burnt down in the 1960s following the filming of "Island in the Sun" starring Harry Belafonte.
"It's now a roofless ruin, set in its grounds with wonderful views," he said, lamenting the fact that there's little protection for historic buildings in Barbados.
To that end, Chubb is working with the National Trust of England & Wales, the Barbados National Trust, the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation and Prince of Wales Foundation for the Built Environment. For a four-month period, two architects will visit Barbados, taking inventory of all of the island's historic buildings.
What makes Lancaster House different is that it's not a stuffy old museum full of period furniture but a vibrant, cheerful mansion that frequently hosts gala fundraisers, antique shows, receptions, lectures and stage performances.
Corrie Scott, an artist who maintains the website for Lancaster House, is a longtime friend of Chubb's. She said art galleries are often "quite intimidating" to ordinary people.
"I find it very irritating when you have somebody so pompous you can barely speak to him. That's why I like to make things as user-friendly as possible," she told Américas. "You keep a very high standard, but at the same time you encourage questions."
During the winter season, up to 100 people a day visit Lancaster House, particularly on weekends. Management doesn't charge admission, though donations are gladly accepted.
According to Chubb, "in the English-speaking Caribbean, there's never really ever been a serious, professional gallery. There are several galleries, but nothing that promotes Caribbean artists, and we bring in artists from overseas. It's only during the last 18 months that we've started pushing, and making sure we're open five days a week. Before, it was by appointment only."
Many cruise-ship passengers now visit the gallery and surrounding gardens, as do independent tourists and local schoolchildren. Prices of artwork and artifacts range from a few hundred dollars to $30,000. Recent exhibitions have featured works by Jerome Radigois of Martinique, Guyanese artist Dennis DeCaires, and Barbadian watercolor artist Peter Springer.