I gave a lecture for the Gardens Trust recently about Friar Park, the extraordinary house and garden of Sir Frank Crisp. An eagle-eyed friend of mine got in touch afterwards to ask about one of the images I’d used – the one below with a detail enlarged on the right. Was it, he asked, a blackamoor statue? Indeed it is but although I’ve looked at the maps and images of Friar Park over and over again in the last few years I hadn’t really taken much notice. It was just another sundial in the Dial Garden. Just shows how easy to overlook things or not to see them. That’s the point of this post.
I’m also going to do something I’ve never done before in the seven years I’ve been writing this blog, but you’ll have to read on to find out what that is!
Of course my friend, Patrick Eyres, had a good reason to notice – he’s an expert on 18thc gardens and garden statuary and was a trustee for many years of the wonderful gardens at Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire. There, as part of a bid for a grant to restore the gardens and the great Victorian conservatory he has made a special study of a blackamoor statue in the grounds. It was the only survivor of the original garden statuary. Representing a kneeling African man it was made of lead and dated from the early 18thc. It had almost certainly been bought and installed by the castle’s owner Sir Thomas Wentworth a diplomat who helped to negotiate the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
So the “discovery” of the Friar Park blackamoor obviously led to a conversation about how Patrick had become involved and why he was interested in this particular form of statuary.
It began at Wentworth Castle where the trustees were very successful at raising money for the restoration and maintenance of the gardens. Working with another trustee, Jane Furse from the Yorkshire Gardens Trust, Patrick encouraged fellow trustees to restore the blackamoor as part of their bid for grant funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Union to restore the Victorian conservatory. The plan was keep as much of the conservatory’s original planting and layout as possible given that it now had to be a multi-purpose [and fund-raising] space for events such as weddings. The original layout was a typical imperial one with the 4 major continents represented in 4 different planting areas. The trustees planned to install the blackamoor inside the restored conservatory in the Africa section, since bitter experience with other restoration projects had taught them that to leave a lead statue outside would be to invite its theft. But it seemed a bit pointless to merely dump the statue without any form of labelling or interpretation. The trouble was that no-one really knew anything about it. Patrick decided to go off and find out what he could in the archives and recalled that “It was the grimmest research project I’ve ever undertaken.”
For reasons which will become apparent I won’t give away everything that Patrick discovered [you can read more in “The Blackamoor and the Georgian Garden”, the 2012 issue of the New Arcadian Journal] suffice it too say that it challenged my idea that, by and large, gardens are perceived as places of respite from the real world, somewhere we can be at peace or commune with nature.
In the end the blackamoor figure was expertly restored and stands in a very prominent place in the wonderful conservatory at Wentworth in a way which shines a light on the history of empire and colonialism. With it is this notice: “Sir Thomas Wentworth helped to negotiate the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. This international treaty confirmed Britain as the most important commercial power in Europe. It included a lucrative monopoly over the Atlantic slave trade. Wentworth represented this in his house and gardens, including a statue of a kneeling African man supporting a sundial that now stands in the conservatory. Like many of his contemporaries, Wentworth made a great deal of money from the sale and labour of enslaved Africans. This human misery helped pay for the house and gardens he built.”
The statue is a very rare survivor of what was a very popular 18thc form of statuary. The story of the most well known of the other survivors recently caused considerable controversy, because it used to sit in the most prominent position imaginable at Dunham Massey in Cheshire- right outside the front door. A notice next to it read: “This sundial is in the style of one commissioned by King William III. It represents Africa, one of four continents known at the time. The figure depicts a Moor, not a slave, and he has knelt here since before 1750.” Formerly the home of the earls of Warrington, Dunham Massey is now in the hands of the National Trust. The blackamoor was removed and put into storage just 4 days after the removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, with the National Trust having to seek retrospective planning permission for their action.
The Trust’s reaction perhaps indicates how difficult it can be to hear and respond to some of the lesser known – or at least less understood- stories from our history.
The problem is that history is not an eternal truth. It is regularly rewritten. I don’t mean that we can alter the fact that the First World War started in 1914 and ended in 1918 but its causes and the consequences can be almost endlessly debated. In 1945 the great philosopher Karl Popper wrote : “History has no meaning. The realm of facts is infinitely rich and there must be selection.” For those of my and earlier generations our national history had been selected to be largely a matter of kings and queens, politics and battles, but gradually over my lifetime – especially the last 50 years – a whole new way of looking at the past has opened up. If you look at the range of seminars hosted by the Institute of Historical Research you’ll find people interested in working class history, women’s history, gay history, as well as the history of transport, libraries, food, sport and surprise surprise gardens and landscapes alongside those more traditional areas which revolved around great or powerful individuals and the machinations of great powers.
During the same timeframe outside academia people began to take an interest in the history of virtually every aspect of human existence you can name. Groups formed, knowledge spread and stories were told. This widening of approaches has been a slow process, as the example of garden history shows. Although the first books on the history of gardens and gardening date back to Horace Walpole in the late 18thc and John Claudius Loudon in the early 19thc, its not until Alicia Amherst published A History of Gardening in England in 1895 that things really got going, and its not until the formation of the Garden History Society in 1966 that garden history began to be taken seriously as a branch of history. A generally accepted narrative of garden history developed during that time but new research and books like Fiona Davison’s are adding to it in new and exciting ways.
In my view all these new approaches are great news. The more we know about the past the more we understand the present and the better prepared we are for the future.
Meanwhile some academics were beginning to investigate historic gardens and landscapes from an economic perspective, asking questions not just about design and planting but their financing too. This led to a series of articles in journals in the 1990s, but the momentum grew around the time of the bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition of the British Slave Trade. [It may be worth pointing out that contrary to popular perception this did not end slavery merely the trade and its not until 1833 Parliament finally abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape.]
English Heritage commissioned research into links with transatlantic slavery or its abolition among families who owned properties now in its care to increase their own understanding. This led to the ‘Slavery and the British Country House’ conference at the London School of Economics in 2009, which English Heritage co-organised with the University of the West of England and the National Trust. This offered researchers the chance to present their findings and discuss how they might be presented to visitors. It also led to the publication by English Heritage of Slavery and the British Country House in 2013.
There were also two Economic and Social Research Council funded projects: Legacies of British Slave-ownership project (2009-2012), and Structure and significance of British Caribbean slave-ownership 1763-1833 which was also supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (2013-2015). These led to the establishment of a huge freely accessible database managed by University College London. Since then many institutions have taken seriously the work of addressing difficult aspects of their histories including the National Trust, the Church of England, the Bank of England, Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh as well as many universities. The Black Lives Matter campaign, whatever the controversies surrounding it, has brought a renewed focus to this work not just in Britain but across the globe.
It has led to an increasing focus on heritage stories, like that of the blackamoor, which illuminate the history of empire and colonialism. Some people are affronted or upset by such tales. Certainly they are not always easy to hear, but many people have found ways of making them engaging and personal, and about all of us rather than just a few.
What’s good is that most of these new stories are not about finger-wagging or hand-wringing but much more about acknowledgement of past wrongs and a celebration of stories, like that of Dido Belle or John Ystumllyn, long-lost or never told.
Seeing the past from a different perspective, rather like seeing the present from someone else’s perspective, can be hard, but is very rewarding. When I was doing my MA many years ago the most memorable seminar discussion was about “what is a historical fact.” The best response was that history is like a string vest. It’s made up of “facts” loosely connected by “stories” but it takes the shape of whoever put it on: some parts stretched, some sagged, some get tangled up while others were out of sight and overlooked. In other words different people could tell different stories about the same events.
Sometimes, especially to those of us dealing with gardens, landscapes and even plants, some of the less pleasant aspects and ideas we uncover can be surprising and unsettling. Like the story of the blackamoor they can be hard to present and hard to hear. They can challenge how we view ourselves, especially when we’re in a place like a garden that we expect to be unthreatening, and a place that supports existing values.
So I’m pleased that the Gardens Trust is about to offer a series of new lectures exploring some of these voices that have been forgotten or overlooked. Our hope is to fill gaps in our collective knowledge, and explore new positive ways of looking at the whole history of landscapes, gardens and horticulture.
Our speakers are scientists, artists, historians, gardeners, heritage professionals and academics and between them they’ll be exploring subjects as diverse as the realities of plant-hunting in China, the voices and stories that have helped build Africa’s Great Green Wall, projects to engage refugee groups and other diverse communities with historic parks and gardens, as well as contemporary questions of race, heritage and the English countryside. We’ll also be hearing about ways in which the Atlantic slave economy permeated the garden culture of Georgian Britain, and about the work of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh on the history and science of their collections and the way they are shared with the public… and of course Patrick will be exploring the history of the blackamoor. A final discussion panel with leading figures in the field will debate issues raised.
The blog is most definitely not the sales arm of the Gardens Trust but I think this series of lectures is so interesting and important that I’m doing something I’ve never done before and that’s try to persuade you to buy a ticket! I know you won’t regret it.
Starting on 12 April 2021, lectures takes place every Monday at 6pm for 10 weeks. Recordings will be available for a week afterwards for those who can’t make the live session. Details and booking at www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/other-voices-in-garden-history-tickets-139078965931 Tickets are £5 per session or £40 for all ten, with a discount price of just £15 for students and apprentices.