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Chris Day: White Wash

Whitewash Wall

A guest blog commissioned by Harewood from Chris Day, to mark UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition

Have British black artists found their voice in today’s art world when it comes to equality and race?

Are British black artists visible in today’s art world or have the historical entrenched imbalance of equality towards black artists still an issue.

Throughout history, the legacy of the 1800s’ transatlantic slave trade and colonial rule has been depicted in one form or another in art, and not always in a positive manner. The painting by François Biard (Proclamation de la liberté des Noirs aux Colonies [Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies]) was criticised by another painter of the time, Nicolas Auguste Galimard, who remarked that, ‘Negroes will always show up badly as principal figures in a picture’.

With racial and dehumanising images, black people have had to endure an assault on their identity, equality and social status. Whilst visually portraying them as inferior to the rest of society, other artists like J M W Turner (The Slave Ship) and Richard Ansdell (The Hunted Slaves) captured barbaric acts of the transatlantic slave trade and the suffering of Africans and somehow tried to instil in the audience a sense of pity and injustice, or even, perhaps, tried to make a political statement with art.

This points to one of the reasons why western art of the early 1800s mainly shows black people in subservient and inferior roles and, with no television or internet these paintings were the window onto social life of the time. In the years following, both black and white people have been shown images that portray black people as inferior.

Such issues continue to haunt black communities and the rise of an intolerance to anything that is foreign is only fuelling the fire of inequality.

Black culture and identity did not begin with the transatlantic slave trade and yet, in school history lessons, slavery is amongst the first thing you are taught about black people and how famous white men protested to free the enslaved. Thus, even at an early stage of education, the seed of black people being inferior is planted.

Black history and culture are rich and colourful and should be celebrated. This sense of worth has influenced a multitude of black artists to take up arms to depict not only the transatlantic slave trade but also promote black culture and history in a positive light.

Researching social, civil and racial differences that occurred in the 1960s and 1980s helped me to develop and understand the racial barriers that artists in this era had to face and how they dealt with it. Black British artists in the 1980s like Keith Piper, Sonia Boyce, Chila Burman and many more have had to fight to be recognised as equal in the art world; unfortunately many have not had the same exposure or recognition as their white counterparts.

Errol Lloyd, a founder-member of CAM (The Caribbean Artist Movement), had his first exhibition shut down by white controllers due to his black images – images that confronted social indifferences of the time the hostile approach in the 1960s to black people was not only in the streets of Britain but managed to infiltrate all establishments.

21st century artists like Kara Walker depict racism with provocative imagery that shouts out the brutal acts that happened in black people in history to the view. Today, galleries have embraced her art work instead of the opposition that Errol Lloyd had to face, although there is still an inherited imbalance of mainly white males who dominate not only the art scene but the galleries, museums and art schools that decide what and when it is suitable for artists’ material to be seen.

Have positive steps been taken to allow Black artists to gain more of an equal stance or has the committed work by collective groups – such as BAM (Black Arts Movement) and artists like Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper and Lubaina Himid – been eradicated? Who is promoting today’s black British artists and how are these artists addressing racial and equality difference in their art?

The development of people into the arts in recent times has had to start at a grass roots level. Workshops in the community have taken the lead in educating people in different areas of artistic expression and culture (due to the decreasing funding schools receive) and a change to the curriculum has forced a number of small workshops and galleries to set up to promote art and support black artists. Link at Brixton Hill and The Alexandra Gallery represent a few that embrace the development of British black art.

Has the perceived lack of black artists in the art sector made it a mainly white establishment by percentage? Visiting many of the galleries in Britain it is hard to find black artists’ work on the walls and in the cabinets.

If so, what are the reasons behind the lack of black faces in the arts and what is being done to address the matter? Examining the education system, social impacts, careers and role models I see how this has affected the way young black people perceive the arts.

Is this a sign of remorse from the art world or are they getting on the band wagon to make a quick buck? The state of play at this time seems to be in favour of all things black and as a result vast amounts of money are being invested into film, art and other media to promote these arrears.

Just like the transatlantic slave trade, we have rich white men investing their money to gain wealth at the cost of the black society. Let’s hope this time the money gained will find its way down to educate and empower and not keep the black race at a subservient level as history likes to depict issues that black artists have to face in today’s art world. Even the work done by fellow black art movements has not made it easier for black artists to be seen. The education system seems to be inherently flawed in its approach to how and what is taught, so even at this root level inequality already has a foothold.

Aspects of equality are apparently being implemented in all areas of social life including the arts. Unfortunately, with the rise of intolerance against ethnic groups in Britain and around the world, race and equality are still an issue and instead of disappearing into history they have re-emerged for the new generation of black artists to confront.

Chris Day is a glass and mixed media artist, who uses his art to engage audiences on issues that are hard to confront, helping to overcome some of the traumas that haunt society’s collective past. His current exhibition at Harewood House, Chris Day: Craft Spotlight, runs until Sunday 31 October 2021.

Previous posts marking International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade & its Abolition

Joe Williams: Memorialise those who sacrificed everything

Olivia Wyatt: Power. Whiteness. Resistance. Challenging the ‘facts’ of the archive

Elaine Mitchener: Sweet Tooth

The Lascelles Slavery Archive

Bibliography

Bailey, A. D, Baucom, I. and Boyce, S. (2005) Shades of Black Assembling the 1980s. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Chambers, E. (2014) Black Artists in British Art a history since the 1950s. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
Chambers, E. (1988) The Arts Council Artpack. A history of black Artists in Britain. London: Haringey
Godfrey, M. and Whitley, Z. (2017) Souls of a Nation Art in the Age of Black Power. London: Tate Publishing Ltd.
Honour, H. (1989) The image of the Black in Western Art. London: Harvard University Press.
Ansdell, R. (1861) The Hunted Slaves [Oil on canvas]. International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.
Biard, F. (1849) Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies [Oil on canvas]. Palace of Versailles, France.
Turner, W. (1840) The Slave Ship [Oil on canvas]. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Roots (1977) ABC, 23 January
Black Panther (2018) Directed by R. Coogle [Film] Paramount Pictures.
12 years a Slave (2013) Directed by S. Queen [DVD] Fox Searchlight.
Tate (2017) Soul of a Nation. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/…/exhibition/soul-nation-art-age-black-power (Accessed:8 October 2018).

Open History at Harewood

As we prepare to launch our inaugural Craft Spotlight this Saturday 26 June 2021, Hannah Obee, Director of Collections, Programming and Learning, takes us through why Craft Spotlight was created,  our Open History programme and Harewood’s commitment to being open and honest about its past.

Black Lives Matter. We knew this, we agreed and we felt we were addressing this, promoting diversity and inclusion through our exhibition and learning programmes. Then on 25 May 2020, George Floyd was murdered on a street in Minneapolis. Suddenly the lens we looked at the world through fractured with a brutal reminder of the vast spectrum of challenges faced by Black people.

While Harewood has repeatedly been committed to addressing its past, opening debate into our roots in the Atlantic Slave Trade, culminating in a year-long programme of events to mark the Bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery in 2007 and giving emerging artists a platform, by commissioning artists of diverse heritage, from Sonia Boyce to Rommi Smith; the momentum of the BLM movement last May stopped us in our tracks and made us reassess our contribution.

Artist Chris Day in his workshop

Craft Spotlight : Chris Day

During our 2019 Harewood Craft Biennial, I read a report that 96% of professional, full-time crafts people identified as White British. We had already decided this lack of diversity would be a key subject for discussion in the next Harewood Biennial. What we needed though was a consistent response to this lack of racial equality in the Craft world, so we developed Craft Spotlight. This provides funding and a platform for an emerging maker of diverse ethnicity to showcase their work, promoting Craft to people of diverse heritage and ensuring their voices are represented at Harewood. The inaugural display opens 26 June 2021 in All Saints Church at Harewood and features the work of emerging glassblower, Chris Day. His research into Black history and his personal experience made him want to create work that started challenging conversations around Black history including the Transatlantic Slave Trade. His aim is to inspire more Black glassblowers through his own work. Craft Spotlight will continue to be staged in the years between the Biennial.

Photograph of George Bertie Robinson

George ‘Bertie’ Robinson

This year we also begin an annual series that will celebrate and share the often-untold stories of people of African descent with Yorkshire connections throughout history. For 2021, we have teamed up with Leeds-based DSRG (the Diasporian Stories Research Group) to bring to life Bertie Robinson: The Footman from St Vincent (17 May – 31 October).  George ‘Bertie’ Robinson travelled with the 5th Earl and Countess from the West Indies to Leeds in 1893 aged 13. Harewood’s first black member of staff, his personal story is extraordinary and compelling. Yet it also lays bare the impact of colonialism in the West Indies post-slavery and attitudes to race in Britain in the early 20th century. These led to him losing his job after nearly 30 years of working for the Lascelles family. New discoveries made while researching the exhibition are included in the display on the State Floor. Our Assistant Curator and Archivist, Rebecca Burton, uncovered letters from his mother Amelia Robinson to the 5th Countess of Harewood while an email to DSRG answered some long-asked questions of what happened after Bertie was sacked. We are very grateful to the Wray family for allowing us to share their story.

 

Two actors in victorian costume reading and looking at books in a library

A Storm at Harewood with Heritage Corner

Finally for 2021, Heritage Corner brings its unique brand of insightful Black History Walks to Harewood in A Storm at Harewood on selected dates between 12 June and 14 August. Following the success of their regular events in Leeds City Centre, Joe Williams and Vanessa Mudd take Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal performance at Harewood in 1847 as a jumping off point to explore African and West Indian connections to Harewood in an imaginative, fun and family-friendly guided walk of the House and Grounds.  Exploring 2,000 years of African presence in Yorkshire, the walk will provide a greater understanding of Africa’s rich history and contribution to the region.

Harewood’s ‘Open History’

Harewood featured in at ITV documentary – ‘Has George Floyd Changed Britain’ – as charitable trust launches Open History programme continuing to explore its history and combat racism.

A year on since George Floyd was murdered, Sir Trevor McDonald and Charlene White examined how the UK has reacted to his death, its effect on the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing conversations about racism in a one-hour documentary aired on ITV this evening.

David Lascelles, Earl of Harewood, spoke of what he, the Countess of Harewood and Harewood House Trust have done to address the estate’s heritage, commenting:

‘I think it’s a period of history that as a nation, we’ve not come to terms with properly. I think that, until we do, a lot of the divisions, a lot of the conflicts, can’t be resolved until we understand our history properly.’

The Trust and the Lascelles family have been at the forefront of acknowledging the estate’s colonial past for over 25 years. Being transparent about colonial history and ensuring the Trust hosts much-needed, and sometimes difficult conversations is vital to calling out racism, and to forging new connections with visitors and the communities of the cities and countryside around.

In the past, Harewood has commissioned artists of diverse heritage from Sonia Boyce to Rommi Smith, and openly engaged in discussions concerning its roots in the Lascelles family’s links to the Atlantic Slave Trade which culminated in a year-long programme of events to mark the Bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery in 2007, notably featuring Geraldine Connor’s Carnival Messiah. 

The Trust continues this commitment to promoting and celebrating equality, diversity and inclusion, and to combating racism. It is central to Harewood’s programming aims, to working with its staff and volunteers, and working with the communities in and around Leeds and West Yorkshire.

2021 UP+OPEN:
OPEN HISTORY

Harewood’s Open History programme engages audiences with the urgent issues of our time, engendering empathy and understanding of these issues in order to celebrate diversity, whilst bringing Harewood’s colonial past into greater focus.

Launching on 12 June, Heritage Corner brings its unique brand of insightful Black History Walks to Harewood following the success of regular events in Leeds City Centre. In a walking story – A Storm at Harewood, stretched across the House and Grounds – Joe Williams and Vanessa Mudd explore inspiring black history and hidden connections to the splendours of Harewood in an imaginative, fun and family-friendly way through the guise of Pablo Fanque and his wife. Fanque, Britain’s first recorded circus owner of African heritage, brought his circus to the Harewood area in 1847. His circus pantomime was based on a plantation narrative, Obi, or Three Fingered Jack, which unusually places an African rebellion leader as hero and was very popular as a play in London’s West End for over two decades.

Joe Williams, Director of Heritage Corner, comments:

‘We aim to enhance positive engagement and discourse on race and social cohesion from a shared heritage perspective. Excluding shame and blame by intent, the aim is to inform and engender pride and hope for all visitors.’ 

Harewood have teamed up with Leeds-based DSRG (the Diasporian Stories Research Group) to bring to life the story of Harewood’s first known black member of staff, George ‘Bertie’ Robinson, who travelled with the 5th Earl and Countess from St Vincent to Leeds aged 13 to work for the Lascelles family. The display, Bertie Robinson: The Footman from St Vincent, shown on the State Floor from 17 May, is the first in an annual series which will celebrate and share the histories of people of African descent with Yorkshire connections throughout history. Bertie lived at Harewood from 1893–1922. Letters, diaries and photographs chart his life, as well as exploring the Lascelles’ links to the West Indies in the early 20th century, the impact of colonialism on St Vincent, and attitudes in Britain towards people of colour at that time.

On 26 June an exhibition by glassblower Chris Day will open in Harewood’s All Saints’ Church as part of a brand new Craft Spotlight series. The series provides a platform for emerging makers of diverse ethnicity. Inaugural artist Chris Day creates work to open conversations around Black history including the Transatlantic Slave Trade and under-representation of makers of diverse heritage in the craft sector. 

Hannah Obee, Harewood Director of Collections, Programme and Learning, comments:

‘A report published by Crafts Council prior to our 2019 Harewood Biennial, Useful/Beautiful: Why Craft Matters, stated that 96% of professional, full-time crafts people identified as White British. We had already decided this lack of diversity would be a key subject for debate – Craft Spotlight now acts as a consistent response to this lack of racial inequality in Craft.’

UP+OPEN:
OPEN LEARNING

As part of the British Museum’s Where We Are programme, Harewood continues its long-standing relationship with the Geraldine Connor Foundation to work on a joint project with young people who define themselves as from the African diaspora. ‘Harewood is my House’ will see a group of ten young people define what they consider arts and culture, identify barriers to engagement and create a response that addresses a local need identified by them.

As a first step in Harewood’s action plan to increase diversity and inclusion, the Trust is prioritising local children of colour experiencing obstacles (financial and societal) to accessing Harewood’s collections and the site. This begins with reaching out to schools through free online teaching resources beginning with Bertie Robinson: The Footman from St Vincent.

The Trust also works with partners Bradford Prevent to develop free resources for use in Bradford Schools, funded by the Home Office. By sharing Harewood’s involvement in the slave trade, wider conversations around Black Lives Matter can be opened with students and upskill teachers to address diverging viewpoints through discussion.

BEYOND 2021

Looking to the future, the Trust’s commitments as part of its continuing discourse around Harewood’s heritage and its responsibility to combat racism is something which it approaches through its programming in order to build engagement, empathy and understanding. 

A performance project with Leeds Playhouse is currently in development, future artists to feature in Craft Spotlight are in discussion and Harewood is looking ahead to the next subject in its series uncovering prolific Yorkshire figures of African descent, amongst other conversations.

Harewood is continuing to review its Learning Strategy and Plan to make explicit its commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. Consultation with local young people, teachers and the wider community will shape our Learning offer to fit their needs so our collections are open to all.

The Trust also believes that empowering its staff to feel confident in having conversations about racism is paramount in combating racism. Every member of the team has undertaken unconscious bias training and is invited to regular all staff talks with guest speakers on such topics, and three company-wide working streams – People, Place and Programme – focus on how equality, diversity and inclusion are central to Harewood’s values.

Jane Marriott, Trust Director comments:

‘It is vital that we continue to call out racism and discrimination, that we use Harewood as a safe place in which to have open conversations and to bring communities together. Harewood can provide the knowledge and understanding of difficult histories, including our own, and it will lift-up marginalised voices, promoting equality, diversity and inclusion. 

‘Our commitment to being open and transparent about Harewood’s past has led to the creation of our Open History programme in 2021. This programme will engage our audiences with the urgent issues of our time in order to engender empathy and understanding so that we can truly celebrate the diversity of our society today.’

Download the Full Release including Editor’s Notes >>

Object in Focus – Harewood’s Dining Room Chairs

 

This chair, part of a set of 20, was made by Thomas Chippendale for the State Dining Room at Harewood House, delivered in around 1771. Its design represents the height of fashion in mid-late 18th century English dining furniture, with a neo-Classical frame decorated with carved ornament such as acanthus leaves, fluting and bell flowers. The seat is upholstered in leather, often utilised on dining furniture for its durability and practical qualities. 

The frame of the chair is made of mahogany – a popular material used for furniture-making in England from the 1720s, highly prized for its naturally rich colouring, fine figuring (graining) and strength. Mahogany is particularly workable, allowing cabinet-makers to carve intricate designs into its surface, lending itself to the highly decorative cabinet-making tradition of the 18th century. 

But the procurement of this versatile and beautiful material came at a human cost, and its history is intertwined with that of the transatlantic slave trade. Following the arrival of the first European colonists in the West Indies and Central Americas in the early 17th century, huge swathes of native timber was felled across the region. Initially this took place to clear land for sugar plantations, but the inevitable recognition of the remarkable qualities of mahogany generated an export market for the raw material itself. 

The significant amount of labour needed to log mahogany trees came from enslaved Africans brought to the West Indies and Central America by European traders. It was dangerous and physically brutal work. Working in groups of between 10-50, enslaved woodcutters would embark upon forest expeditions to cut and log trees, clear roads and transport raw material back to coastal ports via rivers. A description of the logging process of Honduran mahogany written in 1873 by a British cabinet-maker paints a bleak picture of the working conditions for the individuals involved: 

The labour of loading and driving, on account of the intense heat of the sun during the day, must be performed in the night-time, and by torch light…[T]he great number of oxen—the half naked drivers, each bearing a torch—the wildness of the forest scenery—the rattling of the chains, and cracking of the whips—and all of this at the hour of midnight, present…the sober industrial pursuit which has fallen to the lot of the wood-cutters of Honduras. (1)

There were also devastating ecological consequences to the extensive deforestation of the Caribbean region. As a direct result of large-scale sugar production and the systematic exploitation of slave labour, numerous West Indian islands experienced the swift extinction of mahogany and other native trees. Diverse forests were replaced by agricultural monocultures and microclimates that would go on to cause severe problems with drought and erosion. 

When studying Harewood’s history and collection, it is important to consider and reflect upon the devastating socio-economic context that it was a product of. Despite their elegance, Harewood’s dining room chairs – as well as the many other pieces of mahogany furniture designed to sit alongside them – are inseparably linked to Britain’s merciless colonial past. To find out more about the building of Harewood House and its links to the slave trade, visit our Building Harewood digital guide. 

 

(1) Thomson, The Cabinet-maker’s Assistant: A Series of Original Designs for Modern Furniture (London: Blackie and Son, 1873), 28-29.

The Lascelles Slavery Archive

3/11, Release and sale: Henry Frere to Edwin Lascelles, 1787. The image shows part of the schedule relating to a legal release and sale document between Henry Frere and Edwin Lascelles, detailing a list of enslaved people.

23 August marked the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Over the past week, we have shared a series of blogs written by local historians, researchers and artists to reflect on and explore what this means for Harewood and its wider communities.

Much of the historical research featured in these articles draws heavily upon the material contained within the Lascelles Slavery Archive held by the Borthwick Institute of Archives in York. This unique collection of documents provides the basis for much of our knowledge and understanding about Harewood’s links to the West Indies, documenting the Lascelles family’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade during the 18th century. 

The archive contains papers relating to the Lascelles family’s business transactions as sugar merchants and money lenders, such as accounts, administrative papers and correspondence with debtors. There are also many documents relating to the family’s plantations in Barbados, Jamaica, Tobago and Grenada, as well as the enslaved individuals in their possession. Due to the incredibly fragile and unstable condition of the documents, many of which had been exposed to poor historic storage conditions, a HLF funded conservation project took place in 2007 to ensure their long-term survival. 

To facilitate the continuing research and analysis of this important chapter of Harewood’s history, a searchable catalogue of the Lascelles Slavery Archive has been made available online and all documents are available to view by appointment at the Borthwick Institute.  

Click here to find out more about the Lascelles Slavery Archive. Please check the Borthwick Institute’s website for opening and access information.