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.
These objects include two wooden wall brackets which hang in the Crimson Dressing Room. They consist of a shaped platform designed as a canopy, ‘hung’ beneath with carved fringed and tasselled drapes and supported by a black figure each dressed in festive costumes and painted in various colours. One figure wears a gold and navy tunic with striped full-length tights or trousers and a turban, and the second figure in a gold decorated tunic with short trousers in gold to the knee. Currently sat atop the platforms are a pair of painted cat sculptures.
The wall brackets came to Temple Newsam through the Lupton Bequest to Leeds City Art Galleries in 1952. This large bequest came from Agnes (1875-1951) and Norman (1876-1953) Lupton, a brother and sister who were both noted art collectors. The Leeds Art Calendar of 1953 is the earliest material we have found which references the wall brackets. It describes them as being in ‘the form of Blackamoors.’ The term ‘blackamoor’ derives from a historical European aesthetic tradition which merges the Black African and the Muslim ‘Moor.’ It is used to describe a racist stereotype of unnamed non-European peoples, but mostly Black African people, wearing exotic costume and most often occupying submissive positions. As a motif, it has existed in western decorative art since the medieval period but was mostly established as a recognisable stereotype during the seventeenth century, predominantly in Venice. The ‘blackamoor’ can be seen across a variety of decorative arts including furniture, jewellery, ceramics, sculpture, silverware and heraldry. There are significant other examples of decorative art pieces using the ‘blackamoor’ figure as a motif which are evident in a variety of country house collections, including within the National Trust, and also in collections sold by Christies in 2015.
These wall brackets were most likely made in Italy in the 19th century. During this century, Italy and particularly Venice was a hub of trade and a mixing pot of culture. In this period large quantities of Italian furniture and ornaments such as these came to England, often fuelling a taste for the elaborate and ‘exotic’. This was aided by cheaper means of transporting goods. These objects were designed for wealthy people who had a fascination with they perceived to be exotic. In the domestic settings in which they were installed, they would often complement other luxury goods created, imported and purchased by virtue of empire.
Whilst we have little insight into the specific background of these wall brackets, they evoke the aristocratic culture of the 19th century which pursued young black people as household attendants, even some time after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Here, black servants are reconstructed in sculptural form within the wall brackets. The figures are situated in places of servitude and hold up whatever the owner requires upon the plinth, currently the two cat sculptures. As decorative arts pieces, used to highlight status and wealth, the wall brackets and the ‘blackamoor’ figure reflect the western association of black bodies with European wealth, both as a visual sign of opulence, with the figures bright and colourful clothing and place within the aristocratic household, and as a commodity themselves. The shiny finish of the black paint used on the face and arms of the figures, imitating East Asian lacquer, was long associated with precious commodities.
All four of the objects from Temple Newsam’s collection discussed in these blogs have something in common: not only do they all portray black figures, but these figures are portrayed – in different ways – as submissive and subordinate. The collection of these items all evoke contemporary aristocratic culture of using black figures as markers of wealth and status. In all, the black figure is in a position of servitude, ornamentation and racial subjugation, deferring to their white masters or mistresses. Within 18th and 19th century European society, even when not enslaved, black people were seen as a threat, particularly by the upper classes. Yet, it was equally a display of wealth to have a black person within their house, as a servant or enslaved person. So, in these sculptural or pictorial forms, a black figure could be placed within the home in subservient positions without posing a notional threat to the people within the house, thereby making them acceptable. They were effectively trophies of colonial pride but in a sanitised form. Therefore, they erase the difficult narratives of violence, racism and oppression and only present the colonial glory and pride of the owner of the objects and houses.
The often-troubling histories and connections to violence and racism that these objects evoke can be especially jarring and potentially undesirable against the often escapist and embellished history of the country house. However, it is important to consider these objects and their place within the house and the wider social, cultural and political history of the period, to de-sanitise the objects and provide a fuller narrative. Temple Newsam has already begun this process, revealing the house’s past links to colonial activity and violence and those of its many collections originating from other country houses. This blog series has looked to contributing to the continuing ‘decolonisation’ of the collection, by bringing these black figures out of the dark and into the narrative.
By Ellie Leeson, Temple Newsam Studentship intern and MA History of Art Graduate from University of York.