A Tribute to BOSCOE HOLDER - Rare glimpses of his life through the eyes of his beloved
To us, he was Boscoe Holder: master of the arts and cherished countryman. To her, he was that and more. He was her Boscoe: best friend and husband for 50 years. I’m sure you’ll agree that no one knows a man better than his wife of decades, so it was only fitting that his wife, Sheila Holder (nee Clarke), donned the artist’s role to weave for us a tapestry of some of their most precious memories.
I did the math and conjured up the image of an aged woman, but it was obvious when she opened the door that Sheila had retained her youth. A glance around the apartment revealed a plethora of Holder's paintings, but I was particularly struck by one painting called Lady in White. The lady painted was indeed a younger Sheila Holder.
She smiled as she gazed at the painting, "I'll tell you a secret about that painting. The dress that I wore was blue and was initially painted in that color, but then Boscoe got up one morning and said, 'You know, there's something about a white dress. I think I'll paint that dress white.' And so he did!"
“I still feel as if he’s here all the time. His art is all around me and oftentimes I turn around to tell him something—and then realize that he’s not there. We were always the best of friends; he was the artist, the composer, the choreographer. And I? I was his interpreter.”
The British-born Sheila told me all about how she met her late husband. During World War II, she and her mother boarded a Dutch boat headed for the Caribbean. But it would be some time and a storybook adventure later that she would eventually arrive on West Indian soil.
“The day after we left, German planes dropped magnetic mines in the path of the ship and we found ourselves hurled into wintry water where we remained for one and a half hours before we were rescued. I got into one of the lifeboats, and could not recognize anyone as we were all covered in black oil. Then I heard someone crying, ‘I have lost my daughter!’ and recognized my mother’s voice. We were reunited and delivered to Harwich in England. Another boat, the Britannia, not traveling through the English Channel, took us from Liverpool to New York, in convoy. Then we traveled by the McCormack Liner from New York to Barbados, and Lady Boat to Trinidad."
Sheila settled in Trinidad, and Holder, upon hearing of the foreigners who had fled the war, sought the company of Sheila and her mother to hear tales from England. “Boscoe loved to talk to travelers and foreigners; he always wanted to know about where they came from and what it was like.” Soon, Sheila became a member of Holder’s dance group…and a deep friendship sprung between the two.
It was during the period of war—at a time when art and dancing were frowned upon in the Caribbean—that Holder became convinced that he could make a livelihood from his artistic profession. The Americans had set up military bases on the island, and Holder would visit the servicemen to chat and sketch their portraits. His work became so popular among the Americans that they continuously commissioned him to paint their portraits which they would then send home to their families in the United States. Sheila recalled an email that was sent only a few days earlier to their son, Christian, from the son of an American serviceman who was in Trinidad during the war. The soldier’s son had learnt all about Holder as his father always spoke about the artist during the war.
Holder and Sheila married in 1948, and after their son was born, the small family moved to London—their home for the next 20 years. It was there that Holder formed the group, Boscoe Holder and his Caribbean Dancers, in which none other than Sheila was the main dancer. The dance company became famous throughout Europe and performed before Queen Elizabeth II (representing the West Indies) at her coronation in 1953; they danced on a barge, part of the Royal Flotilla, on the Thames. Holder also had his own television show Bal Creole on the BBC, and he’s even credited with being the first to introduce the steelpan to England through television!
During his stay in England, Holder exhibited his pieces at the Trafford Gallery, the Redfern Gallery, and the Castle Museum in Nottingham, and the Leicester Galleries bought two of his paintings for their permanent collection. Thoughout the 1980s, he also showcased his paintings in Puerto Rico, Curacao, Nassau, and Cannes.
But, when Holder returned to Trinidad in the 1960s, it was painting on canvas that consumed him. Sheila recalls, “There was not a moment when he was not sketching.” He worked in both oils and acrylics and his work usually portrayed Caribbean scenery. Holder’s forte, however, was his depiction of Caribbean women.
“Boscoe’s mother was from Martinique and he was inspired by that culture. He loved painting Creole women in white dresses and thought that they were remarkably decorative. In those days, there were black people who did not see themselves as beautiful, but Boscoe did, and his paintings encapsulated this before the phrase ‘black is beautiful’ was coined.”
Holder, who was very connected to his art, once said poetically, “When I look at each of my paintings, I can remember the sight, the taste, the smell, every detail of my life on the day it was painted. I would say it's more like déjà vu.”
Holder’s passion for design penetrated both his professional and personal life. Sheila recounted laughingly, “One of things I miss is that Boscoe did all the shopping! He would buy and often design clothes for me, and for his friends. He’d buy shoes, jewelry…he’d just see something that he knew would look great on me. Now I have to do my own shopping.”
In 1973, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago awarded Boscoe Holder the Hummingbird Medal (Gold) and named a street after him. In 1978, he was the recipient of Venezuela’s highest decoration, the Order of Francisco de Miranda. Then, in 1981, Sir Ellis Clarke—former President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago—presented Prince Charles and Lady Diana with a Holder painting as a wedding gift from the Republic.
When I asked her what she wanted people to know about her husband, Sheila immediately replied, “His generosity. Boscoe was generous with his time, and loved to make jokes. Children would come to see him on and off, for school projects and so on, and Boscoe would be joking with them and he’d have them in stitches!”
She went on. “I don’t think Boscoe himself gave much thought to how he wanted to be remembered, but I think definitely it would be for his art, and the contribution he made to the region.”
Boscoe Holder, loving son, brother, husband, father, artist, dancer, choreographer, pianist, and thinker died in Newtown, Trinidad on the 21st of April, 2007. He will always be remembered by the people he loved and those he inspired.
– Aliyyah Eniath
“Boscoe loved to talk to travelers and foreigners; he always wanted to know about where they came from and what it was like”