Keith Atteck has had his life transformed in the last four years into that of art historian, curator – and really, as he puts it, “detective,” as he has become deeply involved in researching the life and art of his famous aunt, Sybil Atteck (1911-1975).
Atteck was one of TT’s most important visual artists and a founder and early leader of the Trinidad Art Society. She made a major contribution to the development of Caribbean art. She taught, inspired and influenced many local artists from the 1950s to her death in 1975.
Atteck is believed to have been the first Caribbean artist to exhibit at the Royal Academy in London and contributed to over 75 exhibitions during her career, not just in Trinidad and Tobago but in the US, Canada, Jamaica, the Bahamas and the UK.
In the last few years her art has been featured in major exhibitions in the US and elsewhere. She will be featured in a book to come out later this year provisionally titled Great Women Painters.
Atteck was born in Tableland in south Trinidad, and moved with her family to Rio Claro as a child, but grew up in Port of Spain from the age of 12. Early on, she had an interest in art, and later studied it in England , Peru, and the US. She supported herself through her art dela and later teaching art in several secondary schools in Port of Spain.
Keith’s mother Helen Atteck, ran the Sybil Atteck Art Galleries started in 1962, first at the newly opened Trinidad Hilton Hotel and later at the Salvatori Building on Frederick Street. When the Art Society was struggling to find exhibition space, other artists had solo exhibitions in these galleries, among them Leo Glasgow and Edwin Hing Wan.
Keith grew up near his Aunt Sybil’s home and spent time with her. She wanted him to draw, but he wanted to play cricket and football and never took up art. He moved to Canada with his parents as a teenager and Sybil died just a few years later.
While Atteck’s art was always part of the family legacy, Keith went on to engineering and project management, eventually working as a consultant in information management in the public and private sectors. It was only decades later, in 2018, in helping his mother dela try to figure out the authenticity of a painting said to be by Atteck, that he caught the bug, and he’s since become obsessed with documenting her life and work.
He has had to learn many new skills she in investigating the provenance and authenticity of art, how one builds a catalog raisonne of an artist’s work, identifying what images survive of Atteck’s art, what her signatures look like, what subjects painted and when, what shows her pieces have appeared in over the decades, and finding newspaper reviews and long-lost catalogs that discuss her art – and hopefully don’t just list them but have images of them. He has been tracing catalogs of Atteck’s exhibitions at major galleries such as the Commonwealth Institute in London.
Keith noted that Atteck worked in a variety of media throughout his career: “Sybil Atteck is primarily known as a painter, but she did drawings, sculpture, ceramic works, and works in many (other) media.
“Her paintings were initially done using watercolor and oils and eventually moved over to acrylics. Sybil was continuously sketching and did a lot of sketches with crayons, black and whites, with ink wash, pen and pencil.
“I think in part she did all this because she taught…at a number of schools in Port of Spain as an art teacher.”
One area of her work that has been most difficult to trace is the murals she did around Trinidad. The three most important surviving ones still on display are at the Hilton Trinidad, the Fernandes Industrial Complex, and St Theresa’s RC Church at Malick in Barataria. The two terracotta bas reliefs at the Hilton are each 27 feet wide by 3.5 feet tall, and are near the guest services desk: it’s best to ask at the front desk to see them. The second mural tells the story of Fernandes’ rum-making process. The third consists of the 14 stations of the cross.
Atteck did several other large murals that have not survived. One was for the lounge at the Bel Air Hotel at Piarco, another at the Port of Spain General Hospital, in the children’s ward, a third at the Kimling Restaurant on St Vincent Street, Port of Spain and a fourth at the St Stephen’s Anglican Church , Princes Town. Keith has some photos of a few of these, but is searching for anyone who might have access to family photos that include them.
Over the past four years he has become more sophisticated in tracking down the evidence that survives of Atteck’s life and work. Fortunately, her extended family dela still have much of her work, and his parents and family had her personal files, photos and slides she had taken of her art over the years. Keith has compiled records and images in a professional digital catalog of more than 700 pieces of her work, and is constantly searching for more information on her work and where it might survive.
Beyond being interested in cataloging her work, Keith has been building a detailed biography and chronicling the important role that Atteck played in inspiring the formation, and for many years leading the Art Society. Meanwhile, he is starting to hear from academics who are interesting in researching her legacy and collaborating in publishing on her art and life story. In addition, he has arranged for some of Atteck’s work by her to be included in recent group exhibitions in Berlin and at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and is now working on a major solo exhibition devoted to her.
In February 2020, Keith made a research trip to Trinidad and gave standing-room-only talks about Sybil Atteck’s life story and work for the Art Society and the National Museum and Art Gallery. He hopes to return next year for more research.
Anyone who has information, documents, photographs or owns some of Atteck’s art, or knows someone who does can contact Keith Atteck at: email@example.com.
He has already put up dozens of images of work he is looking for at the website: