Jenny Mein is in conversation with Brett Ashmeade-Hawkins.
BRETT ASHMEADE-HAWKINS is the founder of The Jamaica Colonial Heritage Society, an organisation for those interested in preserving Jamaica’s vanishing British Colonial architecture, art, antiques & genealogy. He is also recognised as an authority on West Indian colonial art and antique furniture and has been a fine arts &antiques dealer for over 40 years through his company, Art, Antiques & Appraisals which is based in Miami. Brett was born in South Kensington, London, England to an English father, T. Evelyn Hawkins (a direct descendant of William the Conqueror and the Plantagenet Dynasty), and a Jamaican mother whose ancestors had been in Jamaica for over 300 years and owned coffee and sugar plantations. After prep school in England and his mother’s homesickness for Jamaica, the family settled in Jamaica where he attended Cornwall College, a prestigious boys school (established 1896) in Montego Bay and Campion College, a Roman Catholic co-ed in Kingston, Jamaica. He later studied history, classical art& archaeology at Princeton University.
Question 1: What is your earliest London memory?
I remember my parents taking me to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I must have been 5 years old.
Question 2: Your childhood memory of Jamaica?
The happiest times of my childhood in Jamaica were spent at Fernleigh, the family’s summer cottage over 4,500 feet up in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. It belonged to my uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Denis LeMercier DuQuesnay, and we absolutely loved spending part of every summer up there.
Question 3: Where do you live now and why?
I moved from Miami, Florida to Manila in the Philippines in March 2022. The Philippines is made up of a number of very beautiful tropical islands and they remind me a lot of Jamaica, but thankfully are without all the violent crime and racial tension that we have in Jamaica today.
Question 4: What does home mean to you?
I have lived in England, Jamaica, America, Belize and Costa Rica, but I shall always think of England as home. I used to think of Jamaica as my second home, but it has changed so much since the 1970s that increasingly I no longer feel at home there.
Question 5: What made you start Art, Antiques & Appraisals?
I was originally planning to be a lawyer. My father’s family in England had a strong legal tradition. His great-great-grandfather, John Hawkins (1791-1877), was a partner in one of the oldest law firms in England which was founded in 1591. My father’s great-great uncle, Sir Henry Hawkins, Q.C, later the 1st Baron Brampton (1817-1907), was a very famous barrister and later a judge of the High Court in Victorian England. He was the barrister in the famous “Tichborne” Claimant Case, the judge in the infamous “Cleveland Street Scandal” and later the judge who presided over the Appeal in the Oscar Wilde case. However, when I was at Princeton University, I had several friends who had gone on to Harvard Law School. They were so miserable there and hated it so much that I gave up the idea of becoming a lawyer. Since I was studying Ancient Greek and Roman Art and Architecture at Princeton,
I toyed with the idea of becoming an archaeologist instead. However, after just one summer spent on an archaeological excavation in Greece, I decided that it wasn’t for me. I had always grown up in historic houses filled with Private Collections of fine art and antiques, so becoming an art and antiques dealer and then an appraiser seemed like the logical career choice for
me. So I started up in the art and antique business in 1985 and I never looked back.
Question 6: Who has influenced you in your career and taste?
I would have to say that my mother was the biggest influence on my career and taste. She loved 18th and Early 19th-century English art and antiques and had impeccable taste. Her style when it came to interior design was very much a mixture of English Country House and Jamaica Plantation Great House from the British Colonial period. She was very keen on Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton mahogany furniture, Georgian Silver, Derby Imari China and Heriz Persian Rugs, as well as curtains and upholstery in Rose Chintz and Indian Crewel. She managed to flawlessly combine those with Early 19th-century Jamaican Colonial Mahogany furniture such as sideboards, four-poster beds and Planters Chairs. She also loved Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology, opera, classical music and gardens. My father loved history, art, English literature and film. Both of my parents had a profound influence on me
and on my tastes.
Question 7: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My friend, the late Clyde Verley of Thetford Hall Plantation in Jamaica told me “There are too many lawyers in this world so just do whatever makes you happiest”. Best advice I ever had.
Question 8: What do you consider your greatest achievement or, what has been the best moment of your career?
Publishing my book on “The Plantation Great Houses of Jamaica” will probably be my greatest achievement, but some of the best moments in my life were spent travelling to various countries with my good friend, Prince Egon von Furstenberg. He was an incredibly sophisticated and amusing character and he introduced me to so many famous people in international high society. He used to tell the most wonderful stories and he was an endless fount of scandalous society gossip, none of which can be repeated here.
Question 9: A museum that has really impressed you?
The British Museum in London, because it is so vast and has such an impressive and comprehensive collection. It was founded by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) who was actually a collateral ancestor of my mother. By a strange coincidence another collateral ancestor of my mother, Sir Edward Maunde Thompson (1840-1929), was later director of the British Museum from 1888 to 1909.
Question 10: What do you collect?
I used to collect 18th and early 19th-century Jamaican Colonial furniture, as well as antique paintings, watercolours, prints and maps of Jamaica. Also books on Jamaican Colonial History. However, I sold off most of my Private Collection before I left Miami, Florida and moved to Manila in the Philippines. I only kept one 19th-century watercolour, two 18th-century prints and one 17th-century map of Jamaica. Although I did ship all of my mother’s 18th and 19th-century ancestral portraits, silver, china and Waterford Crystal here to Manila. They are currently on display in my Condo in Makati.
Question 11: What is your most treasured possession?
My 18th and 19th-century ancestral family portraits. They embody the history and genealogy of my mother’s ancestors, the Ashmeade, Rose, Bromley, Whitehorne, Lawrence, Hilton, Ewbank, Tracey, Goulburn and Cole families, who were some of the oldest families amongst the British Colonial Plantocracy of Jamaica.
Question 12: How would you describe your aesthetic?
I particularly love the 18th and early 19th-century Georgian and Regency periods. The art and antiques, the architecture and gardens, the costumes and the classical music. It was a splendid era of great style and sophistication, something noticeably lacking these days.
Question 13: If you could buy any building in the UK and live there, which would it be and why?
I would have to say the 18th-century Neoclassical villa in Bath that now houses The Holburne Museum. It is absolute Palladian perfection itself.
Question 14: An historic house in Jamaica you love and why?
Arcadia Great House in Trelawny. It has everything that you could want in an early 19th-century Plantation Great House in Jamaica. An avenue of stately Royal Palms leading up to the house. A site high up on a mountain, with constant cool breezes, and breathtaking panoramic views of the countryside and distant coast. Large and airy high-ceilinged rooms leading out to wrap-around verandahs on both floors. An interior filled with Jamaica Colonial art and antiques that has remained unchanged since the 1840s. It’s like stepping back in time to another era.
Question 15: An 18th/19th-century Jamaican painting you love and why?
I have a Late 19th-century watercolour of Content Estate, a large Sugar Plantation in Hanover, Jamaica, by Frederick Cooke, c. 1878. It is absolutely charming. The plantation is situated in a beautiful vale and is surrounded by wooded mountains. It shows the 18th Century Great House and the Overseer’s House on two separate hills and the Sugar Works in the vale below located in between them. Cane fields spread out in every direction. It is such a quintessential scene of old Plantation life deep in the rural countryside of 19th-century Victorian Jamaica, so very picturesque, peaceful and serene. A glimpse of a vanished World.
Question 16: What sort of garden do you fantasise about having? Formal landscape or informal cottage?
I grew up with formal gardens. We lived on an 18-acre hilltop estate in Brandon Hill overlooking Montego Bay, Jamaica and my mother had a 4-acre Italian Garden. It had terraces, a garden staircase, classical urns and statuary, an avenue of Cypress trees, a gazebo, a rose garden, an orchid house and huge sweeping lawns. It was quite well-known and visitors used to come to see it. So I have always preferred formal Italian gardens to any other type of gardens. Although I must confess that I do like a stately English Deer Park around a Country House. I think that William Kent, Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphrey Repton were absolute geniuses when it came to 18th Century English landscape design.
Question 17: Do you like entertaining?
I used to. My mother was quite the hostess when we lived in Jamaica and she entertained constantly, which was easy when you have a large staff of servants. She continued to throw dinner parties in Miami and was famous for her fine food. That all ceased after she had a stroke in 2010. I entertained quite a bit when I lived in South Beach in Miami and also in Belize, but now that I am in a wheelchair and no longer have servants I just don’t entertain on the same scale. I’ll still have two or three people to lunch or to tea occasionally, but certainly no more dinner parties or cocktail parties.
Question 18: Who would you most love to invite to your dinner party?
I like witty and sophisticated people, who are well-educated and well-travelled and knowledgeable about the Arts, so I would say either Petronius Arbiter or Oscar Wilde.
Question 19: An indulgence you will never forgo?
Triple-Creme Brie and Figs.
Question 20: What projects are you working on at the moment?
I am the co-founder of Feed the Homeless Street Children of Manila, a charity campaign that my partner Francis Ian Cabrera Garcia and I started in December 2022 after moving to the Philippines. For more information and/or donation please visit the link: https://gofund.me/d70b8F84. I have also just begun a brand new series of Vlogs on YouTube titled “The Inconvenient Truth” by Brett Ashmeade-Hawkins. I discuss a wide variety of subjects on it from Art to Pop Culture, Politics to Religion and Social Issues to Current Affairs. I urge everyone to watch it and to hit the Like and Subscribe Buttons.
Question 21: What would you grab if there was a fire?
My Ancestral family portraits. That and my Fire Insurance Policy.
Question 22: What would you like your epitaph to say?
“Brett Evelyn Ashmeade-Hawkins, Esq., Architectural Historian and Aesthete. He had a passion for beautiful things”.