The British country house as an institution brings to the mind ideas of grandeur, wealth, beautiful objects, fancy portraits and opulent rooms with towering ceilings. Temple Newsam is such a house. In the last few years, there have been important calls for decolonising our country houses, to highlight hidden narratives and bring figures from obscurity into the light. Within Temple Newsam, there are several objects which contain imagery of black people who have, until recently, faded into obscurity against the dominantly white narrative of the house.
A particular object within the collection is this highly detailed beadwork mirror frame and case from approximately 1662-1670. The mirror frame was likely created by a young woman from a wealthy family, potentially one of the Horton Fawkes family of Farnley Hall, although we’re not sure. The motifs on the mirror are exceptionally detailed and feature a variety of beading, stitches and raised work. The left–side panel represents Charles II with a young black boy, perhaps an attendant or page. The right-side panel represents Queen Catherine of Braganza, with a young white girl, possibly a maid. Both children are wearing smaller versions of the adults’ clothing. The four corners feature raised work characters of a lion, leopard, kingfisher and potentially a parrot. The central panels feature a raised work castle and a seahorse fountain.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, embroidery became a significant skill within the population. Textiles provided warmth and decoration to often plain furniture, and embroidery added further decoration and colour. A variety of objects were embroidered, including hangings, clothing and mirror frames. The decoration of mirror frames was particularly popular between 1660-1680 when this one was made. Whilst embroidery was also a male pursuit, it was mostly associated with women and the domestic space. All girls across the social strata were taught needlework, although the type of work produced depended on their class. Lower class girls were taught practical sewing techniques used for making household textiles and garments. Meanwhile, girls from upper-class families were taught more elaborate and decorative embroidery to highlight their diligence, piety and capability to run a household.
There are many other mirrors like this one of similar dates and style in various collections, including the V&A and the Met. All of them have the figures of a man and woman on either side of the frame, surrounded by a mix of flowers, country houses and animals. What is significant about Temple Newsam’s mirror frame, however, is the figure of the black child next to Charles II. This is a feature none of the other mirrors have, and therefore poses questions about the maker and their choices. Many of mirror frames were inspired by prints or came as kits, as seen with this mirror in the V&A collection. Yet, as none of the other frames with the royals also contain these children, it could suggest the embroider added them.
The important question for us is: who is the boy? Overall, his status is difficult to determine, and we can’t get much information from his clothing, beyond that they are highly decorated. It is also unknown whether this was a real child or added by the maker as a decorative device or marker of status and wealth.
During this period, the presence of a black person within their household became a trend for the aristocracy. The wealthy would display their riches and taste by having young black people in visible positions such as page boys or footmen and wearing extravagant costumes or liveries, like this boy is wearing. This practice of having a black child function as a display of wealth is often seen in aristocratic portraits, as in our last blog.
Whether the boy was real or imagined, we know that Charles II himself bought a black slave from the Marquis of Antrim in 1682 for £50. Whilst this was after this mirror frame was made, it is emblematic of an increasing number of potentially enslaved black people in Britain and at court during this period. Prior to 1650, the black population remained slight, but as Britain’s part in the triangular slave trade developed, numbers began rising after this time to approximately 10,000-20,000, with black people most often arriving as the domestic servants of wealthy planters.
Within the portrayal of black figures within art and decorative items, there is often the assumption today that these figures are slaves. Yet, despite the use of enslaved Africans in British colonies, the status of black people in Britain during this period was more ambiguous. Historians have found that it was rare to find anyone called a slave in records and many black people were not listed as having an occupation. Furthermore, there were no discriminatory laws against black people, unlike in the Americas, and skin colour was rarely recorded. Instead, it was other markers, particularly religion, that were discriminated against. Therefore, they would not have been technically enslaved on British soil, though could have been brought here as an enslaved person.
Nonetheless, despite this ambiguity, it is undeniable that this period was the beginning of Britain’s significant role in the triangular slave trade which committed unfathomable atrocities upon black people for profitable gains. Not only did Charles II buy slaves, but he also granted a charter to the Royal Adventurers into Africa which specified slaves as its main objective. Charles, Queen Catherine and several other members of the royal family and aristocracy also invested money into this venture, forming a quarter of the Company’s shareholders. This company grew to have the monopoly on trading slaves, gold and ivory along the west coast of Africa.
This intricate and fascinating object is an interesting and powerful conduit to explore these troubling histories. Whilst the child’s position within the narrative of the mirror frame remains uncertain, it’s important to bring his story forward.
Look out for the next blog on Isabella, Marchioness of Hertford’s hatchment.
By Ellie Leeson, Temple Newsam Studentship intern and MA History of Art Graduate from University of York.