Archive for the ‘Black identity’ Category

Black identities

November 15, 2010

Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache, later Countess of Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale, with a black servant, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1651, at Ham House, Surrey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Just after I finished writing the previous post, I found a letter published in the 15 January 2004 issue of Country Life in which Jane Clark suggests that the black servant in a portrait of the Earl of Burlington (at Chatsworth) may be a Jacobite symbol. Both Charles II and James III, the ‘Old Pretender’, were sometimes referred to as ‘the black boy’ – originally a reference to Charles II’s dark complexion.

Portrait of Paul Ourry with a black servant, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1748, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/Rob Matheson

Personally I think this explanation is a bit unlikely, not only because it has too much of The Da Vinci Code about it, but also because most of the depictions of black servants in paintings are clearly portraits of real people, rather than mere symbols.

Portrait of Lady Grace Carteret, Countess of Dysart, with a child, a black servant, a spaniel and a cockatoo, c. 1753, at Ham House, Surrey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

That said, black servants were definitely being objectified in the sense that they were regarded as something of a fashion accessory in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

Portrait of John Delaval in Van Dyck costume with a black servant, by William Bell, at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Although they might have personalities, black slaves were still chattels, to be bought and sold like any other exotic accoutrement.

Anonymous portrait of a black coachboy, at Erddig, Wrexham. ©NTPL/John Hammond

That is why the 1730s portrait of the black coachboy at Erddig is relatively exceptional. He is not shown as an exotic rarity adding lustre to the portrait of his masters, but just as himself, in his professional livery and with a tool of his trade.

What does it mean?

November 12, 2010

The conservatory at Wentworth Castle in about 1910. The sundial can just be made out in front of the doors.

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?

Candlestand in the form of a chained African slave, late seventeenth century, at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

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.

Lead figure of a kneeling Indian slave at Melbourne Hall. ©Gardenvisit.com

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.

Lead figure of an African supporting a sundial in the garden at Dunham Massey, with the stables beyond. ©NTPL/Matthew Antrobus

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’.

Back view of the Dunham figure. ©NTPL/Nick Meers

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.

Bird’s-eye view of Dunham massey from the south-east, by John Harris, c. 1750. ©NTPL/Angelo Hornak

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.

Detail of another Harris view, showing the sundial in front of the house.

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.


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