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The ground that Harewood House was built on was bought by Henry Lascelles in 1738, using money from the West Indian sugar trade. The money came from owning plantations, slaves, ships and warehouses, a fact that was pervasive throughout British society at the time, with many of the great institutions; the Church, banks, artistic and educational establishments – either created or greatly enhanced during that period.
Henry was involved in every aspect of the sugar trade, which might now be called vertical integration and however abhorrent the nature of his business, he was a very astute businessman, who became one of the richest men in England. His eldest son Edwin was born in Barbados in 1712 and received a classical education that Henry had not had. In 1738 they acquired the estates of Harewood and Gawthorpe, where Edwin would later build Harewood House. Henry, though, did not live to see it. He killed himself in 1753 and whilst Harewood House is full of portraits, including one of Henry’s brother Edward, who was the junior partner of their business enterprises, there is no image of Henry.
Much of the story of Henry Lascelles is based on research done by the University of York during 2007, which saw a process of conserving and digitising many of the papers dealing with the business affairs of Henry and his partners, so that these could be accessible by the public online. In 2007, a great deal of work was done to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, which included work with schools and community groups, exhibitions with contemporary artists’ work relating to this legacy and the climax of the year was the series of performances of Carnival Messiah, a piece of music theatre inspired by Handel’s Messiah, brought to life through the colour, spectacle and music of Caribbean Carnival.
In a separate chapter, during an inventory of the wine cellars of Harewood, what was soon to be declared the ‘oldest rum in the world’ was discovered. This was distilled in Barbados at the height of the Lascelles’ involvement with the sugar trade and it was sold at auction at record-breaking prices. The proceeds from the sale of the rum were all donated to the Geraldine Connor Foundation, set up following the passing away of artistic director and Carnival Messiah director Geraldine Connor in 2011. The legacy of bringing people together through arts and culture is thus continued and in some way this element of history has come full circle.
“I believe very strongly that we can change things in the present, but for better or for worse there is nothing that any of us can do about history and the past.” David Lascelles, Earl of Harewood.