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.
One such object is the funeral hatchment of Isabella Anne, Marchioness of Hertford, daughter and co-heir of Charles 9th Viscount Irvine and Frances Gibson Shepheard Ingram and 2nd wife of Francis, 2nd Marquess of Hertford, who she married in 1776. She died in 1834 after catching a cold whilst travelling to London from Temple Newsam and was particularly notable as the penultimate mistress of George IV. The point of interest for this study is the two black figures standing either side of the shield of arms.
A funeral hatchment was a diamond shaped canvas or wooden square in a black frame which proclaimed the recent death of a member of a titled or noble family. They were most often displayed on the front of the deceased person’s London residence for the period of mourning, usually 12 months or a year. For Isabella, as the Marchioness of Hertford, this would have been Hertford House in London, where the Wallace Collection now resides. After this point, it was usually taken down and removed to a parish church or perhaps their country seat. The hatchment now resides at Temple Newsam as the house was Isabella’s paternal home. As her parents had no sons, Isabella inherited the house after her mother died in 1807. It would have most likely come back here after it had spent the mourning period after her death on the front of her London home, Hertford House, although the provenance is not absolutely known.
A corruption of ‘achievement,’ a hatchment showed the arms of the deceased person, and from it we can understand their marital status, rank and gender. The all-black background of the hatchment denotes Isabella as a widow and the coronet at the top is that of a Marquess/Marchioness. The lozenge shape upon which the crest is placed shows Isabella’s gender as female, as a man’s hatchment had a shield. The crest in the centre highlights the marriage alliances of the deceased and their family. A lady’s shield would have encompassed the coats of her husband and her father, depending on whether she was an heiress or not. As Isabella’s father had no sons, the Irwin family arms are included on the shield. The point of interest on this hatchment and subject of this blog, however, are the two black figures standing either side of the shield of arms. In heraldic terminology, these are known as supporters. Less commonly portrayed in heraldic displays than the other elements, supporters could be a variety of figures, including humans, animals, mythical beasts, and very rarely, inanimate objects. Due to their rarity, supporters are mainly associated with the higher ranks of nobility and royalty. On Isabella’s hatchment, the supporters are two black men wearing gold breastplates, a tunic and headband and holding the shield of arms in one hand and an oval shield with a sun and a crescent moon in the other.
Throughout heraldic explanations of the Marchioness of Hertford’s full arms, the two figures have been described as ‘Blackamoors,’ who are the supporters of the heraldic arms of the Marquess of Hertford, as highlighted in Debrett’s peerage of 1812. An old family, and a title that has been created and reverted numerous times, the current Marquess title, as was held by Isabella’s husband Francis, was created in 1793 for his father, the 1st Marquess of Hertford. It is not known, however, how these supporters came to be chosen or how far back they go with the title in its variety of incarnations.
The term ‘blackamoor’ derives from a European aesthetic tradition which merges the Black African and the Muslim ‘Moor.’ It is used as a highly stereotypical, if ill-defined description of unnamed non-European peoples, but mostly black African people wearing exotic costume and most often occupying submissive and subservient positions. As a motif, it has existed in western decorative art since the medieval period but was mostly established as a recognisable stereotype during in seventeenth century, predominantly in Venice. The ‘blackamoor’ can be seen across a variety of decorative arts including furniture, jewellery, ceramics, sculpture, silverware and heraldry, as seen on this chair at the Kingston Lacey Estate and this stained glass panel at Speke Hall.
As a combination of racial stereotypes, ‘blackamoors’ were an imagined concept determined by westerners which combined a variety of tropes from both Africa and Asia. The costumes worn by the ‘blackamoors’ on the hatchment are closely associated with allegorical figures of Africans and are particularly reminiscent of those worn by classical athletes, similar to the black figure in William Marshall’s frontispiece to The Smoaking Age or the Life and Death of Tobacco (London 1617). This advert in particular highlights the extensiveness of the imagery of the ‘blackamoor’ within society and its widespread association with commerce and wealth through trade, which was often based on enslaved labour on plantations.
This hatchment is an interesting object which would benefit from further exploration. The choice of supporters was occasionally connected to the family, and the inclusion of ‘blackamoor’ figures within heraldry often has an explanation. For example, the Watt family who owned Speke Hall were slave traders. Therefore, does the Hertford Family also have connections to colonial trade and if not, why are these figures on their family heraldry?
Look out for the final blog of this series on two wall brackets which also explores the connections between all four objects.
By Ellie Leeson, Temple Newsam Studentship intern and MA History of Art Graduate from University of York.