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 a portrait of Princess Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchess of Orleans, with an attendant. Henrietta wears a richly jewelled and swathed dress and holds a picture of her husband, Philip, Duke of Orleans. In the painting’s lower left corner, an attendant, a black boy wearing a metal collar, silk shirt and a pearl earring faces towards the Henrietta and supports the picture with one hand and holds a small spaniel with the other. This boy virtually fades into obscurity, due to the darkness of the background, as he has so far done within the historical narrative of the house and society.
Born in 1644, Princess Henrietta Anne was the daughter of Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, and the youngest sister of Charles II. The princess grew up at the French court with her mother after she was smuggled out of England in 1646. She married Philip Duke of Orleans, the brother of Louis XIV in 1661.
Whilst it was painted in France, the portrait came to Temple Newsam through the marriage of Anne Scarborough to Henry, 7th Viscount Irwin in the mid-eighteenth century. Anne’s grandfather Sir Charles Scarborough had been Charles II’s physician, and his collection of paintings included several Stuart portraits.
The person we want to highlight however is the young black boy. The identity of the boy is unknown, and it is highly likely that his inclusion in the painting is to act as a decorative device, rather than being based on a real person. There are no records to show that Henrietta herself had any black servants or slaves. We therefore don’t know if the child in the portrait represents a servant or an enslaved person.
In France, as in Britain, the status of black people was complicated. Despite the collar around the boy’s neck and the connotations with slavery it possesses, he may not have been an enslaved person. In the 17th century when this portrait was painted, an integral part of France’s national identity was the saying “there are no slaves in France,” and this became the principle for the release of African slaves upon their entry to France, which occurred in 1571 and 1691.
However, historians have questioned the strength of this ‘freedom principle’ and revealed that it was not rigidly enforced. Furthermore, from the late 17th century, a series of regulations were enforced clarifying the status of slaves in France, beginning with the 1685 Code Noir regulations.
Despite this debate surrounding the status of black people in France during this period, there is no doubt that the French were extensively involved within the trans-Atlantic slave trade, becoming the third largest slave trader after Britain and Portugal. Several black people were present at the court of King Louis XIV. Even so, despite this complicated history, the attendant’s young age highlights a stark reality of colonial slavery. Many of the black people enslaved were young, mostly between the ages of 10-29 as they were seen as more malleable and able to do physical labour.
The use of a black figure as a decorative device is a common portrait convention during this period. Other examples include portraits of Louise de Kerouaille and Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache. These black servants served to elevate the status of the sitter, highlighting their wealth and emphasising the sitter’s whiteness through the contrast of skin tones. Class and beauty ideals considered pale complexions to be the most beautiful and a mark of higher-class status. There is a debate whether this contrast was primarily an attempt to portray the subordination of the enslaved attendant, or whether it was an artistic contrast to show the artist’s mastery at creating skin tones. Either way, contemporaries looking at the portrait would have understood both.
The imposed subordination of the attendant is also emphasised by the figures’ postures, poses and gazes in the portrait. Occupying only a small space at the edge of the portrait, the black servant has a persistent gaze towards Henrietta, with a squatted posture and submissive pose. By contrast, Henrietta occupies most of the space, sitting upright and gazing directly at us. This highlights the hierarchy within the portrait, as the enslaved or servant child looks towards their mistress as the focus of the painting, deferring to her position as a white aristocratic woman.
This is further emphasised by the dog. In portraiture, dogs as a motif were used to represent loyalty, particularly towards their ‘master’ or ‘mistress,’ suggested by the way the animal’s gaze was pointing. The gesture of the child holding the dog and their simultaneous gazes towards Henrietta transfers this idea of loyalty from the dog to the enslaved child, reinforcing the concept of a relationship of subordination.
This portrait highlights the realities of colonial slavery within France and Britain, rather than in the colonies and opens debates into the status of black people and how they were viewed by those in power, as subservient devices to project their own wealth and status, both in paintings and real life.
This is the beginning of a collection of blogs exploring four objects from Temple Newsam, all of which contain one or multiple black figures. This blog series looks to continue decolonising the Temple Newsam collection, bringing these black figures into the narrative.
Look out for the next blog on the 16th century Mirror Frame!
By Ellie Leeson, Temple Newsam Studentship intern and MA History of Art Graduate from University of York.