Monday, December 17, 2012

Grey Areas Below The Stairs

The Guardian's James Fenton reported, "Grey areas below stairs: An exhibition on servants confounds some expectations,"  on 12 December 2003.  As James Fenton suggests -- The excellent exhibition of servants' portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, "Below Stairs," has a small section on black people and Indians as they feature in British art. As the catalogue reminds us, before the Mansfield judgement of 1772 black people were bought and sold in this country. The black nurse in the painting by William Aikman, titled The Hon. John and the Hon. Thomas Hamilton with a Negro Servant, is not so much a servant as a slave. She is wearing a silver collar, which makes this clear.

These collars for slaves, we are told by Giles Waterfield in a catalogue essay, were made by the same craftsmen who produced dog collars. The same goes for the padlocks on the collars. In 1756, for instance, the London Advertiser featured an announcement by Matthew Dyer that he made "silver padlocks for Blacks or Dogs; collars, etc". The Bust of a Moor in the exhibition, dating from around 1700, has a collar which once bore a padlock.

If a black figure in a painting is wearing such a collar, clearly we are talking about a slave. But in other cases it is hard to tell, simply from the way they are presented in a picture, what kind of life these figures led. The painter Richard Cosway, usually written up as a ridiculous dandy, depicted himself and his wife in an etching, seated in a garden, wearing fancy dress from the age of Rubens, being served grapes by a black attendant.

And indeed the Cosways had a black servant, who no doubt modelled for this scene. But this servant was a writer, Quobna Ottabah Cugoano, who published his "Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery" from the Cosways' house, and who attracted a number of distinguished names to his list of subscribers, including Cosway himself, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Reynolds's biographer, James Northcote. Cugoano corresponded with distinguished figures, using his employer's address, so it is clear that this literary and agitational work was more than condoned by Cosway.

Reynolds also had a black footman, whose face is seen in a portrait of the Marquis of Granby, in which he holds the reins of the Marquis's horse. He may also be the subject of a beautiful portrait in the Menil Collection in Houston. Northcote tells this story about him.

Reynolds one day was reading the newspaper over breakfast when he noticed that a prisoner had been tried and condemned to death for robbery committed on his Negro footman. This was the first Reynolds had heard of the case, so he rang for the servants and demanded an explanation, which was as follows.

Mrs Anna Williams, the blind old lady who lived at Dr Johnson's house, had been dining one evening at the Reynoldses, and had gone home by hackney coach. The footman had been sent to accompany her. On his way back he had met with friends who "detained him till so late an hour" (presumably drinking, although this is not said) that when he got home he found the doors shut and everyone gone to bed. In this dilemma, he wandered the streets until he came to a watch-house, where there were several other homeless. Here he took shelter and soon fell sound asleep.

A poor thief, who had been taken in custody by the constable of the night, seeing that the footman had a watch and money in his pocket, stole the watch, cut the pocket and took his money. "When the Black awaked from his nap, he soon discovered what had been done to his cost, and immediately gave the alarm, and a strict search was made through the company; when the various articles which the Black had lost were found in the possession of the unfortunate wretch who had stolen them."

Reynolds, much moved by this story, sent his principal servant, Ralph Kirkly, to find what had happened to the thief, who was discovered in jail, waiting for death, forlorn and without a friend, "reduced almost to a skeleton by famine and filth". "Sir Joshua now ordered fresh cloathing to be sent to him, and also that the black servant as a penance, as well as an act of charity should carry to him every day a sufficient supply of food from his own table." In due course, through the influence of Burke, Reynolds got the death sentence commuted to transportation.

The story is briefly and vividly told. Quite apart from the insight it gives us into night-time London, it tells us a great deal about the moral world of Reynolds and his household. The black footman is held to account for his fecklessness in staying out too late. The thief is immediately seen as an object of pity. A charitable effort is made, influence is brought to bear, and a solution of sorts is found, the thief being sent into exile "furnished with all necessaries".

I can't find the name of the black footman, but presumably it could be retrieved by a trawl through accounts of the Old Bailey sessions of circa 1769. To me this story is a reminder of how much more can be retrieved of such lives, and how, when we see them hovering on the margins of portraits, we should not assume that these black servants were objects of indifference to their employers. (source: The Guardian)


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