British Artists in Mexico

England is, as far as colours go, fairly subdued and uniform. Mexico is the opposite

By Simon Brewster

Although I have lived and worked in Mexico for almost 40 years, my first impressions of the country are still very vivid. After landing in Mexico after a stopover in the Bahamas, as we drove into the city that was to be my home for so many years, I was conscious not just of the size and chaos compared to what I had known anywhere before but the colours.

England is, as far as colours go, fairly subdued and uniform. Mexico is the opposite, I could see from my windows houses painted bright yellow, pink and blue. There seemed to be a happy abandon in the use of colours which I discovered is a part of Mexican culture. The street markets use awnings made of a pinkish red material. Mexican textiles, many of which are handmade, have richly coloured textures. Perhaps it has to do with the huge variety of flowers, fruits and spices that you can find here. Going to a Mexican market exposes you to an almost overwhelming variety of colours, aromas and flavours. Even The Day of the Dead is characterised by the deep yellow and strong, almost sweet, smell of Mexican marigolds which decorate the altars in many homes.

The Day of the Dead is characterised by the deep yellow and strong, almost sweet, smell of Mexican marigolds

Small wonder then that some British artists have found inspiration in Mexico.

A number of British artists were inspired to produce some of their great work in Mexico. One was Daniel Thomas Egerton (1797-1842) who was one of the first travelling painters to arrive in Mexico after independence when the borders were opened to non-Hispanics.

He stayed in the country from 1829 to 1836 depicting agricultural and commercial scenes from the cities of Puebla and Guadalajara as well as the mining town, Zacatecas. On his return to England in 1840 he published Vistas de Mexico which consisted of 12 plates. Egerton returned to Mexico late in 1840 and took up residence in Tacubaya a suburb of Mexico City.  Sadly, his career was cut short as he was murdered with his wife Alice in 1842. Mystery surrounds the murders as the motive was attributed to robbery, but Egerton was carrying large amounts of money, and both he and his wife were wearing jewelry, though none of this was taken.

British diplomatic pressure to solve the crime led to the arrest of three local petty thieves, two of whom were hanged, and one of whom was allowed to escape from prison. Other motives that have been suggested include Egerton’s alleged involvement in fraudulent land sales in Texas, his ties with a Masonic order, or an unknown jealous lover of Alice. There were even rumours that he was a spy working for the British government.

The example of one of his landscapes below sits in the British Embassy Residence in Mexico City and shows the Valley of Mexico with the snow-covered Iztaccihuatl volcano in the background.

Egerton, Daniel Thomas; The Valley of Mexico; Government Art Collection;

Frederick Catherwood (1799 – 1854) was a contemporary of Egerton and was an architect and explorer as well as a talented artist. I first noticed his lithographs as some copies were hanging in the main meeting room of the Anglo Mexican Foundation where I worked. I think they had been donated by someone at some stage in the past. I have to confess that when my mind wandered at certain moments, my eyes were drawn to the lithographs on the wall in front of me. I could picture this lone English artist hacking through the undergrowth in Yucatan led by trusty local guides and coming across Mayan ruins that had been abandoned for centuries and capturing the beauty of their sculptures and buildings on his sketch pad.

Portion of a building, Las Monjas, Yucatan by Frederick Catherwood

Together with travel writer John Lloyd Stephens, in 1839 Catherwood formed an expedition to explore dozens of Mayan ruins resulting in the detailed description of 44 sites. It can be argued that Stephens and Catherwood are responsible for the rediscovery of the Maya civilization, and thanks to their publications the Maya civilization became known to the Western World.

It can be argued that Stephens and Catherwood are responsible for the rediscovery of the Maya civilization

The expedition resulted in the publication in 1841 of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucutan. The text was written by Stephens and the engravings were based on the drawings of Catherwood.  In 1843 they returned to Yucatan to make further explorations, publishing Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

In 1844 Catherwood produced Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, with 25 colour lithographs from water colours he made at various ruins. The example below shows you the amount of detail he was able to capture in his paintings of Mayan ruins partly hidden by the encroaching vegetation. 

Three other British artists are also worthy of mention. The first is It can be argued that Stephens and Catherwood are responsible for the rediscovery of the Maya civilization (1907-1984) poet, sculptor and patron of the arts.

The eccentric Edward James inherited a fortune and large estate in England from his father. He was an enthusiastic supporter of surrealism and helped artists such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. He also was a loyal patron of British artist Leonora Carrington.  His great project in Mexico, in which he invested US$5 million, was ‘Las Pozas’ in the village of Xilitla, in the state of San Luis Potosi.

Edward James, Garden Las Pozas, Photo by Jesse,

From the early 1950s he transformed a former coffee plantation into one of the largest and least known artistic monuments of the 20th century. James planted enormous numbers of exotic plants and orchids and created a unique world of sculptures based on his sketches and constructed by a small army of local indigenous groups who must have seem James as a benefactor given the large sums of money he lavished on his pet project.

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), like her patron and friend, Edward James came from a wealthy background but rebelled against this running away to Paris at the age of 20 to live with the much older artist Max Ernst. There she met a number of surrealist painters including Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton, Salvador Dali and Leonor Fini and began painting herself. After escaping from Nazi occupied France following the internment of Max Ernst she had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a mental hospital against her will. She managed to escape by a marriage of convenience with a Mexican diplomat, Renato Leduc, and after a year in New York she moved to Mexico City and divorced Leduc in 1942 and stayed there the rest of her life.

Her paintings reflect her surrealist background but also other themes: alchemy, magic and renaissance paintings. I have to confess I do not like her paintings very much but I do admire her technical skill and some of the finer draftsmanship in her paintings can only have been achieved with immense patience and very fine brushes! Of all the painters I have included in this article, she is the one who in my view was the least influenced by Mexico. Her fantasy world of strange ethereal shapes, fantastic animals, symbolism and translucent colours is probably not linked to any culture and existed in her imagination more than anywhere else. You can see the kind of things I am talking about in this painting .


The Old Maids by Leonora Carrington

Irish-born Phil Kelly (1950-2010) is the final artist we will look at. The first time I saw a Phil Kelly painting was in the library of the Foundation. It was a given in in return for an exhibition we had hosted. In common with a lot of his paintings, it was a riot of richly applied oils showing a traffic jam in Mexico City and featuring a green ‘ecological’ VW Beetle taxi, now sadly replaced by a Japanese model.

If you look at the paintings Phil [Kelly] did before he came to Mexico they don’t have the same light and colour his Mexican paintings possess. 

If you look at the paintings Phil did before he came to Mexico they don’t have the same light and colour his Mexican paintings possess. 

This street scene of Mexico City captures so much about the city and country: bright sun; buildings painted in powerful, strong colours; telephone and electricity cables strung out above the streets; the roof of a taxi and a pedestrian crossing which anyone valuing their lives will never cross unless the cars are a long way off and even when a traffic light turns to red, you should always wait before crossing or risk being mown down by cars that will jump the light rather than stop for pedestrians.

Phil Kelly got to know the city by travelling on public transport and walking around while going to teach English classes.  The importance of Mexico City in inspiring his paintings is clear from his own words:

“You can’t be a painter if you’re not curious about your surroundings. What I very consciously try to do is to find something every day. The color of a truck. The way that someone crosses the street. The garbage trucks, two in a row going down the boulevard. Or the steam coming from a vat of tamales.”

Phil Kelly
Amarillo Anahuac by Phil Kelly

I will continue to appreciate the colours that are so much part of Mexico and make every day in some ways a painting to enjoy.

Simon Brewster

Simon Brewster has lived and worked in Mexico for over 40 years. He has taught English and trained teachers in the UK, Italy and Mexico. He originally studied history at the University of Cambridge before training as a teacher and later he took a Master’s in Business Administration. He has written more than 10 textbooks for adults, high school and secondary students. At present, he is Chief Academic Officer of the Anglo Mexican Foundation in Mexico City.  In his spare time he draws and paints, reads, spends time with his Polish wife, Justine, and tries to play tennis. 

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