What does it mean?

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.

9 Responses to “What does it mean?”

  1. Karena Says:

    I would love to add something of importance.It is just interesting how history changes; now our perception, in spite of the beauty of the sculpture is distubing. Thank you Emile.


    Art by Karena

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Karena, yes this is a particularly poignant example of how perceptions change over time. And it also illustrates the value of historical artefacts, as they allow us to glimpse how people thought and felt back then, even – or especially – if we might have a very different outlook now.

  3. Ingrid Collins Says:

    As I see it, the issue is that historical artifacts need to be explained to the visiting public. When I went to Dunham Massey, I could find no information in the guide book or elsewhere. How can people make a historical judgement without such information? The UK’s shameful involvement in the slave trade, which abused Africans physically and sexually, should not be wiped from our memory and our conscience.

    Ingrid Collins

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Ingrid, I quite agree that objects should be explained and that issues like slavery should not be ignored. Indeed, this post is an attempt at exploring one aspect of that subject.

    In the case of Dunham the family did not have any direct connections to the slave trade, but at houses where there was such a connection (such as at Dyrham Park and Penrhyn Castle) we certainly don’t hide the fact.

  5. Ingrid Collins Says:

    Interesting reply, but are you addressing my point? The statue is about slavery and would not have been made or bought if the slave trade did not exist – so whether the family were involved directly in human trafficking or not, this is a significant piece that represents an important attitude in Britain at the time. I still think the issue needs to be acknowledged in information available to visitors to Dunham Massey.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Ingrid, because the properties of the National Trust are not displayed as museums, but are recreations of lived-in historic interiors and gardens, there may not always be information immediately available for all the objects on display, as there would be in ‘normal’ museums.

    Moreover, the presentation of these places is driven by what is most significant in the history of the place in question, which means that at places with a connection to the slave trade we will highlight that, whereas at other places we will highlight other issues. This is not to deny certain issues, it is simply working towards our core aim, which is to bring out and share the ‘spirit’ of these places.

    We also hope to make our inventory database available via the internet in a few months’ time, which should help to make collections more accessible.

  7. egmond codfried Says:

    The Moor in western art, literature and heraldry symbolizes blue blood. And blue blood was Black blood, as many nobles and kings were described as brown or black of complexion, or can be understood to have been brown or black of complexion due to their family ties. The Moor is, like images and artifacts of the hunt, a symbol of high birth. The Moor is also King Balthazar in Adoration scenes which show the Black King as a good christian, present at the birth of Christianity.


  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thatb is an interesting angle. I had read that King Charles II was called ‘black’, i.e. having a swarthy complection, but I didn’t know it could have those noble associations.

  9. egmond codfried Says:

    You are on your way Emile. Racism against Blacks can be understood as a liberation ideology, as whites fear that Blacks might rule them again. The nobility used the skins from their white serfs as shoe leather. People were routinely condemned to life flaying. Cause and effect: there should be a reason for all this fear and hatred against Blacks, next to the need of understanding the obsession with images of Moors. The nobility self-identified as Blacks with images of Moors, family names based on Moor etc. And they were described in person as brown and black of complexion, in spite of the fashionable white portraits they sometimes ordered, and which are now used to paint history white. Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote about brown and black skinned gentry, and was described as of ‘a brown colour-not pink.’ This forms the base of my ‘Was Jane Austen Black?’ study you can read about in the blog.

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