Garden History Society members will be familiar with the New Arcadian Press and its publications from the table of sumptuous wares displayed at the Society’s AGMs, manned by the genius of the enterprise, Dr Patrick Eyres. With their gorgeous coloured covers and unique combination of artist-illustrations and scholarly texts, the journals are unique in garden publishing. If the New Arcadian Journal has had a mission in its garden history, it is to convey the simple truth that gardens cannot be dissociated from their context, neither historical nor contemporary. The latest offering, inspired by the restoration of the Blackamoor statue at Wentworth Castle in South Yorkshire, addresses the evolution of that figure and explores the implications for our understanding of eighteenth-century gardens.
In 2007, the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act, which brought an end to the British slave trade, prompted a number of projects exploring aspects of the social history of the slave trade. As Dan Clayton-Jones, Chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Wales, put it, from tea drinking in a drawing room to working in a cotton mill, slavery had a profound impact on everyone in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and yet has been ‘virtually airbrushed from history’. Or as W. G. Sebald remarked, regarding the origins of such collections as the Tate Gallery and the Mauritshuis, it is ‘as if all works of art were coated with a sugar glaze or indeed completely made of sugar’.1
Until then, there had been little work on this aspect of the wealth which underpins the country house. As part of its response to the anniversary, English Heritage commissioned research which identified thirty-three of its properties having connections either to slavery or to abolition. Four of these (Bolsover Castle, Brodsworth Hall, Marble Hill and Northington Grange) were then subject to more detailed research. In 2009 it held a ground-breaking conference on ‘Slavery and the British Country House’. In the same year, University College London set up a major and ongoing research project into Britain’s debt to slavery, mapping how the enormous compensation to plantation owners and investors paid out after the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 flowed into elite culture, including gardens.
It is a fascinating and shameful aspect of England’s heritage upon which this Journal sheds much-needed light. In 1713 the British acquired, through the Peace of Utrecht, the monopoly on the Spanish slave trade, known as the Asiento, which it handed to the newly formed South Sea Company. The trade expanded rapidly: in 1710 British ships were transporting 125,600 slaves annually; by 1739 the annual figure was 296,000. From then on through the eighteenth century, huge wealth was generated by investments either directly in slavery, in the plantations, or in the manufacturing of goods to trade in Africa. In turn, landowners spent much of this money on houses and their landscapes.
Apart from Susanne Seymour et al’s 1994 pioneering report on Moccas,2 little has been done to address the role of slave wealth in garden history. The one honourable exception was the ground-breaking Bittersweet initiative of the much-lamented Gateway Gardens Trust, funded in 2007 by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This revealed the extent of the links between Welsh gardens and slavery, sugar, tobacco and the associated industries which supplied trade goods, even down to the introduction of plants.
Now, the New Arcadian Journal has fired a terrific salvo at this complacency and silence. Taking as its starting point Laurence Weaver’s 1909 description of the figure’s ‘engaging triviality’, the Journal undertakes a detailed exploration of the Wentworth figure’s evolution. Developing from an emblem of one of the four Continents into explicitly the ‘African Slave’, it soon became the most popular figure in the yard of the statue-maker John Cheere. Answering the question why this was so, the Journal implicates gardens deeply in the profits of the slave trade and, more relevant to garden historians, reveals how slavery inspired significant elements in the decoration of eighteenth-century gardens. The statue was located in the garden to celebrate Britain’s empire and the wealth generated by the slave trade; a new inventory prepared for this Journal almost doubles the previously identified number of Blackamoor statues in English gardens.
The Journal does not cite him, but the volume brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s brutally clear-eyed assessment:
Cultural treasures have an origin which [we] cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.3
It describes the sheer scale of British involvement in the slave trade. Britain was responsible for roughly half of the total estimated 12 million people shipped from Africa to the Americas, dwarfing the figures for other national fleets. And it also pinpoints the fact that the triangular trade’s value as a whole meant it was viewed as an important part of the national economy. It attracted investors of all sorts from the middle classes to royalty. Far from singling out a handful of sites, the Journal concludes with the question of whether there were any Georgian country estates that were not created from the profits on investments in the slave economy.
As ever, the New Arcadian Journal presents its far-reaching revision of conventional wisdom in a combination of text and image. The images are slyly pointed: Chris Broughton merges a view of the Arcadian landscape at Cannon Hall in South Yorkshire with the slave-ship Cannon Hall. First hand reports of the voyage, and the brutal evidence of the suffering and loss of life among the human cargo, have been wonderfully resurrected from the Sheffield City Archives by Michael Charlesworth. Elsewhere, images of sloops, snows and brigs glide across the pages through exquisite drawings of garden statuary and other architectural details from Hampton Court, Versailles, Dunham Massey, Melbourne and Wentworth. Eyres’s painstaking research reveals how many of these are not innocent garden decoration, as if there ever were such a thing, but in fact embody the gardens’ relation to the slave trade. Medallions from the Temple of Concord and Victory at Stowe, for example, are revealed to commemorate the capture of African slave ports and Caribbean sugar islands.
One of the Journal’s authors, Sylvia Collicott, hazards the guess that further research will reveal that every country house in the care of the National Trust was built with profits from the slave trade. It will be interesting to see just how much further we are willing to dig into the roots of ‘our’ heritage. As Sebald again remarked, ‘the capital amassed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through various forms of slave economy is still in circulation … still bearing interest’. This volume makes an important contribution to our understanding of this aspect of eighteenth-century gardens and landscapes, which otherwise remains largely unexplored, and once again demonstrates how intimately they were entwined with politics and commerce.
1 W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 194.
2 Susanne Seymour, Stephen Daniels and Charles Watkins, Estate and Empire: Sir George Cornewall’s Management of Moccas, Herefordshire, and La Taste, Grenada, 1771-1819. Working Paper No. 28 (Nottingham: Department of Geography, University of Nottingham, 1994).
3 Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the philosophy of history’, in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations (London: Fontana, 1982), p. 258.
Garden History, 40: 1 (2012), pp. 161-162