Manley, Edna

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Manley, Edna

March 1, 1900

Edna Manley was born to Harvey Swithenbank and Martha Elliot Shearer. Her father, a Wesleyan priest from Yorkshire in England, met Martha, who was a Jamaican of mixed descent, while he was on a tour of duty in Jamaica. They were married in Jamaica in 1895. Edna, the fifth of nine children, was born in England, where the family had moved after the birth of the first two children.

After leaving high school, Edna studied art at a number of English art institutions, including the prestigious St. Martin's School of Art in London. She also studied privately with Maurice Harding, the animal sculptor. In 1921 she married her cousin, Norman Manley, a Jamaican of mixed parentage and a Rhodes scholar studying law at Oxford University. After the birth of their first child, Douglas, they returned in 1922 to Jamaica, where a second son, Michael, was born in 1924.

Initially, Manley exhibited her London-made sculptures, but her work quickly evolved into personal observations of Jamaican life. Despite her European training and background, she immediately identified with the Jamaican environment and made conscious efforts to incorporate Negro-influenced forms into her work. Her first Jamaican masterpiece, The Beadseller, was produced in 1922. When she began making such sculptures as Negro Aroused (1935), Market Woman (1936), and Young Negro (1936) and exhibiting them locally, she created her own brand of European modernism, a brand of vorticism, but she infused it with a definite Caribbean take and subject matter. Vorticism was a branch futurism, headlined by British artist Wyndham Lewis, a movement that incorporated dynamism and significant form in the art of sculpture. By the 1930s Manley was concentrating on exhibiting and devoting her energies fully to Jamaica, although she still maintained connections with the London group, some of whom were members of the Bloomsbury Group.

Until the 1930s there had been little interest in contemporary art in Jamaica. Manley belonged to a group of middle-class revolutionaries who openly criticized the policies and practices of the Institute of Jamaica. Founded in 1879, the institute was mandated to "encourage the pursuit of literature, science and art in Jamaica." Despite the zeal of its librarian/curator Frank Cundall and board chair in H. G. De Lisser, the institute promoted the culture of Jamaica, thought to have no culture of its own, as part of the British Empire, privileging works by famous British artists, photographers, and printmakers. Manley and the group of middle-class revolutionaries, including Basil Parkes, S. R. Braithewaite, Douglas Judah, N. N. Nethersole, W. E. Foster-Davies, and Norman Manley, forced a resolution in 1936 to create changes in the institute's programs, among these the Junior Centre catering to the artistic needs of Jamaica's youth and the establishment of the Jamaica School of Art and Craft.

By 1940 the School of Visual Arts began as a workshop and ran for ten years, offering free art classes at the Junior Centre of the Institute of Jamaica. Jamaican youth aged eight to eighteen, such as Ralph Campbell, Albert Huie, David Pottinger, Henry Daley, Lloyd Van Patterson, and Vernal Reuben, began receiving their earliest instruction there. Petrine Archer Straw commented that there was a sympathy of vision and shared interest between tutors in painting Jamaican folk and lifestyles. Manley encouraged a movement away from the "anaemic and imitative" earlier work and introduced postimpressionism.

In the present postcolonial discourses, Edna Manley's artistic legacy in Jamaica is being recast, contextualizing her origins and class position. Because of her efforts, however, a contemporary Jamaican art movement provides a dialogue with itself, a history of artistic production, and an institution that she helped to build, using the influence of her position as the prime minister's wife. In 1995 the Cultural Training Centre of Jamaica was renamed the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts. Her sculptural pieces, such as Prophet (1935), Diggers (1936), Pocomania (1936), and Prayer (1937), are treasured as Jamaican classics in its National Gallery and other collections. Angel (1970), in the Kingston Parish Church, is one of the best known of her later works.

After Norman Manley died in 1969, Edna Manley continued her prolific production of sculpture, modeled works in other media, and painting, leaving other insightful observations on her experience of Jamaica, including Ghetto Mother (1981) and Birth (1986). She died early in 1987. Her life with Norman, spiritual father of Jamaica's national movement toward independence, was mirrored in her role as image maker demonstrating Jamaica's independence struggle and unique voice.

See also Art in the Anglophone Caribbean; Manley, Norman


Boxer, David. Edna Manley: The Seventies (exhibition catalog). Kingston, Jamaica: The Gallery, 1980.

Boxer, David. Edna Manley, Sculptor. Kingston, Jamaica: Edna Manley Foundation and National Gallery of Jamaica, 1990.

Boxer, David, and Veerle Poupeye. Modern Jamaican Art. Mona, Jamaica: Ian Randle Press, University of the West Indies Development and Endowment Fund, 1998.

Brown, Wayne. Edna Manley: The Private Years, 19001938. London: Andre Deutsch, 1975.

Manley, Rachel, ed. Edna Manley: The Diaries. Kingston: Heinemann (Caribbean), 1989.

Paul, Annie. "Legislating Taste: The Curator's Palette." Small Axe: A Journal of Caribbean Criticism 4 (September 1998): 6585.

patricia mohammed (2005)