Black identities

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.

6 Responses to “Black identities”

  1. style court Says:


    The portrait of the coachboy is so striking. This post and your previous one really demonstrate how enlightening the study of art history can be. Whenever I tell people what my major was, I always sense it sounds vaguely frivolous but clearly art history is often a jumping off point to other areas.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Courtney. Art is not just prettiness or decoration, it is a visual manifestation of politics, economics, philosophy, religion, social structures, etc.

    And even the prettiness, i.e. what people find attractive at a given point in time, can open doors into the past and into other cultures.

    We should have signs at the entrance to every National Trust property saying: “Beware: Nothing is what it seems!” 🙂

  3. Jenn Says:

    Thank you so much for these last two posts– they’re precisely what I love pointing to, to people who think the National Trust is just about “rich peoples’ houses.” Have you been able to identify any of the slaves portrayed in the portraits, or at least narrow it down?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Jenn, thank you. It depends on whether the names of servants were recorded generally. At Erddig the documentation about servants, including portraits in which they are the main subject, is particularly rich, with many of them identified by name (although not in the case of this coachboy).

    There are similar collections of servant portraits at Hawarden, Chirk Castle, Dudmaston, Lyme Park and Chatsworth and it has been suggested that there was a tradition in the West Midlands of a more informal relationship between masters and servants.

  5. Janet Says:

    It is interesting to see these images together. The Getty did a wonderful exhibition some years ago of early-mid 19th-century photographic images of African Americans: Hidden Witness. The images are extraordinary.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks for that link.

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