Manley, Edna 1900–1987
Edna Manley 1900–1987
“Her legacy extends beyond the expression of a personal artistic vision, to a vision of the realities and possibilities of a nation and a people,” wrote Dena Merriam in Sculpture Review magazine. English-born sculptor Edna Manley became so entrenched in Jamaican culture that her work clearly grew to capture the spirit of the Caribbean island. She was wife to one Jamaican prime minister and mother to another. Often hailed as the “Mother of Jamaican art,” Manley not only was Jamaica’s foremost sculptor, but also was a pioneer for Jamaican art.
Manley’s father, Harvey Swithenbank, was a Wesleyan clergyman, and married Ellie Shearer in 1895. Swithenbank met Shearer, who was Jamaican, while on a seven-year tour of duty on the island. Manley was born in 1900, in Bournemouth, England. Her father died when she was nine, and Manley’s mother was left to raise nine children on her own. As the middle child, Manley was highly independent and spirited. Although her creative inclinations were clear early on, she was an impatient child and adolescent. She once attended several art schools in a two-year period, impatient with the limitations of training the schools offered.
When Manley was a teenager, she met her Jamaican cousin, Norman Washington Manley. A 21-year-old Rhodes Scholar and handsome champion athlete, he would be in England for two years to study at Oxford. Although Manley was charmed, she did not see Norman for four more years. Her next encounter with Norman occurred while he was on leave from military service in World War I, a weary soldier taking a break from battle. After the war, Norman returned to his studies at Oxford, and he and Manley developed a close friendship. Norman became her confidante, and the only person who could temper the young sculptor’s restlessness. The couple’s long discussions about art and regular trips to London museums and galleries helped Manley develop her views of art. They were married in 1921.
The Manleys sailed for Jamaica in 1922, just weeks before the birth of their first child, Douglas. Manley was anxious to start sculpting. “When I came to Jamaica I just was totally and absolutely inspired,” she told David Boxer, a painter and director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, in an interview for Americas magazine. Man-ley’s mother was Jamaican, and Manley had been raised with her mother’s memories and stories of Jamaica.
The move to Jamaica had a profound impact on her work. She left the conventional animal studies of her London days behind, and her work took on a more “inspired formal elegance,” according to Boxer. Man-ley’s materials consisted mostly of native woods—she used yacca, mahogany, Guatemalan redwood, juniper cedar, and primavera. Some of the work dating from her first year on the island are Beadseller, and Listener. In describing Beadseller, Boxer said, “It was as if in one fell swoop, nearly a hundred years of sculptural development had been bridged: In this, her first work done in Jamaica, Edna seems to have given expression to her ideas about contemporary British sculpture with which she had saturated herself prior to leaving England.”
Born Edna Swithenbank, March 1, 1900, in Bournemouth, England; died in 1987; married Norman Washington Manley, 1921 (died 1969); children: Douglas, Michael. Education: Regent Street Polytechnic, London, 1918-20; St. Martin’s School of Art, London, 1920-22; Royal Academy, London, 1920-22.
Career: Sculptor; works exhibited regularly in England, 1927-80; first solo exhibition in Jamaica, 1937; exhibition, Ten Jamaican Sculptors, Commonwealth Institute, London, England, 1975; exhibition, Edna Manley: The Seventies, National Gallery of JamaicaJamaica, 1980; co-founder, teacher, Jamaica Art School, 1950,
Awards: Silver Musgrave Medal, Institute of Jamaica, Kingston, 1929; Gold Musgrave Medal, Institute of Jamaica, Kingston, 1943; honorary degree, University of the West lndies, 1975; Order of Merit, National Awards, 1980; Fellow, Institute of Jamaica, Kingston, 1980.
Both pieces exhibited Manley’s new, more expressive, and cubist style.
Between 1925 and 1929, Manley softened some of her geometric forms, replacing them with more massive, rounded ones. Her son, Michael, was born during this time. Market Women, a study of two voluptuous women sitting back to back, and Demeter, a carving of the mythical Earth Mother, are indicative of Manley’s late-1920s influence. The 1930s saw another change in her sculptural style. She tamed her early-1920s cubist lines with rounder influences, and produced a new, definitive style that lasted into the 1940s.
Jamaica was facing many political changes during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Black Jamaicans were looking to do away with the old colonial system on the island. They were ready for a new social order, and voiced their displeasure with the colonial system through strikes, riots, food shortages, and protest marches. Manley’s work of the time reflected this civil unrest. Works like Prophet, Diggers, Pocomania, and Negro Aroused “caught the inner spirit of our people and flung their rapidly rising resentment of the stagnant colonial order into vivid, appropriate sculptural forms,” wrote poet M.G. Smith.
Although she’d been exhibiting her work in England since 1927, Manley didn’t have her first solo show in Jamaica until 1937. The show ran for only five days, but almost a thousand people saw her work. The show marked a turning point in Jamaica’s undeveloped art movement, and it prompted the first island-wide group show of Jamaican artists. Manley was also one of the founders of the new Jamaica School of Art. After premiering in Jamaica, her show opened in England, where it was received with much fanfare. It was the last time Manley’s work would be shown in London for nearly 40 years.
While she was in London, Manley learned that the people of Jamaica had collected the money to buy Negro Aroused. Individuals pitched in whatever they could afford, and purchased the piece to start a national art collection. She was moved by this act, in part because it was such a difficult piece for her to create. “Negro Aroused, …was trying to create a national vision, and it nearly killed me, it was trying to put something into being that was bigger than myself and almost other than myself,” Manley told Sculpture Review.
Nationalist feelings in Jamaica continued to rise. Norman Manley entered politics, and founded the Peoples’ National Party in 1938. Although Manley was hesitant at first, she quickly accepted her husband’s place—and her own—in Jamaican politics. She also designed The Rising Sun logo for the Peoples’ National Party. The beginning of Jamaica’s new government—and the fall of colonialism—was reflected in Manley’s work, which at the time dealt with the cyclical, birth-and-death themes of the sun and moon. Her work was also heavily influenced by the nature that surrounded her at Nomdmi, the mountain retreat she had built with her husband.
The 1950s and 1960s were quiet times for Manley as an artist. Her husband became more involved with politics, and became chief minister of Jamaica in 1955. Manley’s responsibilities as the wife of a politician left little time for art. In 1965, she created a statue of Paul Bogle to commemorate Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion. The statue was highly controversial because it was the first public statue of a black man in Jamaica. Manley also returned, in her personal carvings, to the animal sculptures she did as a young woman.
In 1969, Norman Manley died. He had helped Jamaica to achieve total independence from Britain and self government by 1962. Manley’s carvings during this period were very personal—reflections on her husband’s death, her pain, and sense of loss. She retreated to the mountains and created Adios, lovers in a last embrace, and Woman, an agonized woman alone. The end of this grieving period was marked by her creation of the triumphant Mountain Women. She had accepted the loss of her husband. “I felt that because my roots were here in Jamaica, I could survive,” she told Americas.” It was my return to the world after that period of intense grief.”
After creating several more profound carvings, including Faun, Message, and Journey, Manley gave her carving tools away to a young Jamaican sculptor and declared that she would never work with wood again. Instead, she worked with modeled terracotta or plaster casts. During the 1970s, the major themes of Manley’s work were expressions of her “grandmother,” or “old woman” image, of matriarchal society, and memories of her life with Norman.
But Manley did not leave politics completely after the death of her husband. Her son, Michael Norman, was elected as prime minister in the 1980s. Manley continued to sculpt until her death in 1987. Although a great deal of her work was intensely personal, she created a body of sculpture that embodies Jamaican culture and spirit. English novelist Sir Hugh Walpole, a collector of her work, spoke at the opening of her 1937 London show. “There is a very strange and curious spirit there and Mrs. Manley has got within that strange spirit,” he remarked. “There is in Jamaica a beauty that finds its expression through her, that comes partly from the Jamaican material she uses, partly from her own individuality, and partly also, I think, from the sort of sense of beauty that the different people of Jamaica themselves possess.” For Manley, expressing the beauty of Jamaica was second nature. “I carve as a Jamaican for Jamaica,” she told Americas, “trying to understand our problems and living near to the heart of our people.”
Riggs, Thomas, ed., St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press, 1997.
Americas, June-July 1980, p. 23
Sculpture Review, Winter 1996, p. 20.
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