The gardern historian Dr Patrick Eyres (who featured here previously) has been involved in the restoration of the gardens of Wentworth Castle, in South Yorkshire. He is trying to find out more about the lead sculpture of a black man supporting a sundial that used to stand in front of the conservatory there. What was the meaning of such figures in a garden context?
Sculptures of black men, which were called blackamoors, sometimes represented slaves or servants. In Baroque interiors such figures, made of carved and painted wood, served as candlestands and tables. People at the time seemed to be happy to live with images of slaves in chains, which today we would obviously find disturbing.
There may have been a religious aspect to this imagery, as a representation of the enslavement of the soul by the body. Richard Wheeler, National Trust gardens curator, speculates that this might have been the meaning of the figures of the African and Indian kneeling slaves in the garden at Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire (image kindly provided by Gardenvisit.com). The figures are situated near the metal garden pavilion called the Birdcage, which had a similar symbolic meaning.
Another, more positive explanation is that such figures (including those of other races) represented the four continents as they were defined in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Africa, America, Asia and Europe. By extension they would then stand for ‘the known world’.
The lead figure of an African holding up a sundial at Dunham Massey, Cheshire, seems to be one of these ‘continents’. It was probably made by Andries Carpentière (1670-1737), who supplied numerous sculptures for the house (and for the Booth family monuments in nearby Bowdon church) in the 1730s.
The African can be seen in the bird’s-eye-view paintings by Richard Harris painted in about 1750, in the centre of the lawn below the south front of the house. Most of the other figures were removed by the fifth Earl of Stamford in the late eighteenth century.
Do leave a comment if you can offer other examples or possible explanations.
As it happens, there will be a symposium at Harvard University next week on ‘The Image of the Black in Western Art’ – details of that and of the associated multi-volume book and exhibition can be found via the Enfilade blog.