The elegant restoration of Kenwood House largely conceals the links between Britain’s country houses and fortunes made in the slave trade, finds Isabelle Priest
The connection between slavery and Britain’s country houses has been reopened with the arrival of a detailed look at the subject in a new book, Slavery and the British Country House, and with the relaunch of London’s Kenwood House, whose links with the transatlantic slave trade and West Indian slavery are known. A visit to Kenwood today offers the opportunity to assess how the representation of its collection and architecture might have altered in response.
The house has certainly had an elegant transformation that is apparently truer to its ‘original’ design and worth visiting in its own right, but on the surface, little of its narrative has changed. Despite receiving some pretty fierce criticism from Caroline Bressey in Slavery and the British Country House, and being owned and run by the book’s publisher, English Heritage, Kenwood’s historical ties to the slave trade and slavery remain largely concealed by the glory and intricacy of its display.
Dido Elizabeth Belle – the mixed-race great niece of Kenwood’s owner Lord Mansfield – who lived and grew up there for some 30 years in the late 18th century, appears only twice and in neither instance is it immediately apparent why and how she got there. The other presence, in the form of a young black page attending Princess Henrietta of Lorraine in a painting from 1634 by Anthony van Dyck in the dining room, is left undiscussed. That said, English Heritage seems to have gone for a pared down approach to conveying the house’s history.
This lack of response is a disappointment. In-depth research is rendered almost futile if it is not incorporated into physical sites of memory. Britain’s heritage is a contested area. As co-editor Madge Dresser writes in the introduction: ‘When considering the stories of those people associated with a particular property, curators make a judgement about whose stories are sufficiently significant to merit recounting.’ How these histories are told is identity forming, reaching into ‘our very notions of who “belongs” to Britain’ and what Britain is. If these buildings are about remembering, who or what gets ‘forgotten’ in the public discourse can be just as significant, with consequences that can contribute to a collective idealisation of our past.
Dresser highlighted the importance of this topic several years ago in ‘Set in Stone: Statues and Slavery in London’, which said that of all London statues erected between 1700 and 1779 to commemorate professional men, at least half had links to the slave trade or plantations. I was annoyed that I had been meant to admire these men; that for all the knowledge in books, they did not come with some kind of public warning.
In the same vein, this new book – which is at least on sale at Kenwood – asks similar questions about the British country house: what links might be derived from slavery and what implications should these have on the way such properties are represented today? The book forms part of a growing body of research in the past 20 years into the economic, cultural and physical impact of the slave trade and slavery on metropolitan Britain and its continuing legacy. Interest in the subject has especially grown since the commemorations of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007.
The book has 13 chapters, each written by different authors. Topics range from how trade in and the labour of enslaved Africans affected the erection, renovation and occupation of Britain’s stately homes between the 1660s and 1820s, to how it affected the architectural aesthetic – including, for example, the use of mahogany and exotic birds and plants for decorative schemes.
Written mostly by academics, the book is highly scholarly and at times impenetrable. The analysis is far more complex than Dresser’s article about statues. Certain chapters assume a lot of prior knowledge – such as that of the South Sea Company bubble. A particular contention when considering the wealth used in the building and buying of country estates is how to determine whether its origin was from slavery or other sources.
Nevertheless, the book argues that there are some important places and houses that were built largely on the profits of slavery. UCL researcher Nick Draper finds that by the abolition of slavery in 1833, in total between ‘five and 10 per cent of all British country houses would be expected to have been occupied by slave owners’. But in some areas, the figure would have been much higher – Scotland, along with the South West, South and South East of England.
The best-known architect in the book commissioned for families involved in the slave trade is John Vanbrugh. He rebuilt Kingsweston House in 1708 in Gloucestershire for Robert and Edward Southwell, both government officials in the administration of West Indian affairs. Henry Joynes, the architect’s former clerk of works at Blenheim Palace, rebuilt Normanton Hall in Rutland in the Palladian style, of which only the former church of St Matthew remains, for the Heathcote family. Gilbert Heathcote’s incredible wealth was generated as a merchant of slaves and in particular as part of the very profitable business of re‑exporting slaves to the Spanish colonies, enabling him to establish a family seat in the landed British aristocracy. Marble Hill House, designed by Roger Morris, was commissioned by Henrietta Howard after she made a successful investment in a slave trading company. Other houses include an extension by C R Cockerell to the William Wilkins-designed Northington Garage in Hampshire for Alexander Baring, which even contains a depiction of classical slavery on a fireplace frieze.
It must be remembered that in the 18th century, during this prolific building period, slavery and the slave trade were legal and completely entwined in the everyday life of the nation. Without intending to tarnish the reputation of the British country house, this book is an important milestone in redressing the fact that the heritage sector has been slow to recognise these historical links.
Isabelle Priest is the AJ’s content editor
Slavery and the British Country House
Eds. Madge Dresser and Andrew Hann
English Heritage, 208pp, £50, or as a free download from www.englishheritage.co.uk