The British Country House: Re-curating our Colonial Legacy

Reinterpreting the Curation of Racist Imagery and Artefacts in British Country Houses

It’s been a tough year for the heritage sector. Nonetheless, many organisations have used this time to begin implementing measures to decolonise their collections.  In September 2020, the National Trust made headlines after it published an exhaustive list of all of its properties which were deemed to have links to colonialism, totalling a staggering 93 houses. So, I felt inspired to do some research of my own. The National Trust’s list was a commendable step in the right direction, however there seems to have been an oversight of the importance of the objects inside those colonial houses, and the impact they have upon visitors, too. 

Building on important research publications by Historic England and the National Trust, I am going to highlight the crucial next steps in terms of re-curating the objects inside country houses to ensure that they offer visitors an objective education, not just about the buildings themselves, but the objects inside too. This post consists of 5 main sections: (click on a title to jump to a section)

Progressive Research: A summary of the research that has been done so far

Transparency of Information: How that research is being used 

How can heritage organisations go even further? 

A Proposal to the National Trust and Historic England

Re-Curating Cragside: A Case Study of The Armstrong Collection 

Practical Curation of Problematic Objects

National Trust House with the logo overlaid in white

Progressive Research

After years of being swept under the ornate brocade rug, the colonial secrets of our British country houses are finally being unearthed. The 93 National Trust properties, exposed in the ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery’ (read the full report here), were revealed to have links to colonialism and the slave trade. Many of our favourite rural attractions were built using financial compensation from freed slaves following abolition, and many more were renovated and constructed with money derived from the trading, shipping, and forced labour of slaves.

The National Trust’s investigation follows on from the 2007 research paper which began to explore their colonial past in conjunction with Historic England (previously English Heritage). This preliminary report commissioned research into its properties and found 26 Historic England country houses with inextricable links to colonialism and the slave trade. The project went on to look at four buildings in detail: Bolsover Castle, Brodsworth Hall, Marble Hill and Northington Grange. In 2013, the research was presented online in ‘Slavery and the British Country House’, edited by Madge Dresser and Andrew Hann – you can take a look at the publication here.

Transparency of Information

Overall, I’m impressed that national bodies are starting to take the UK’s colonial past seriously, reacting to a clear demand for open and honest interpretation of our heritage. However, there remains a lack of change at these country estates. This is likely due to resistance from some visitors, who complain that they don’t want to be bombarded with historic guilt when they’re just trying to enjoy a day out at a nice house. There has been headline-making backlash from a number of celebrities and politicians who reject the inclusion of Chartwell House (Winston Churchill’s family home in Kent) as one of the Trust’s historically problematic properties. It’s inclusion was due to Churchill’s role as Colonial Secretary in the 1920s, and his public opposition to independence for India. In response to these criticisms, the National Trust responded that, “the report does not make judgments about people or the places in our care but makes clear the deep and wide-ranging connections of colonialism and historic slavery across the centuries at our houses.” 

Chartwell House

So it’s fair to say, the National Trust and Historic England are still hesitant about displaying the controversial research that they have uncovered. They have made impressive progress, but personally I don’t think they’ve done enough yet: visitors to these country houses shouldn’t leave with the wrong impression. Consciously choosing not to clearly present the research is deceptive and misleading, and opposes the brilliant steps they’ve made so far.

Waddeston Manor Interior

 How can heritage organisations go even further?

After reading ‘Slavery and the British Country House’, I came across a gap in the research. The paper investigates the houses’ architectural history, including construction and renovation, archival links between proprietors and the slave trade, and how compensation from abolition impacted these buildings. The research by Historic England (and the investigations carried out by National Trust so far) have failed to address the objects inside these houses. The exception is Chapter 11 of ‘Slavery and the British Country House’ entitled, ‘Contesting the political legacy of slavery in England’s country houses: a case study of Kenwood House and Osborne House’ by Caroline Bressey, which briefly examines objects inside two of Historic England’s 26 colonial properties. Her research makes a crucial start to considering how historic properties engage with and display themes of race and identity throughout their collections.

The National Trust’s report reveals that they have begun reinterpreting the Asian objects in the ‘Eastern Museum’ at Kedleston Hall, discussing them alongside their wider colonial context. It really is a good start. But this demonstrates the tip of the iceberg in terms of object research and display at these ‘problematic’ houses, and reveals just how much work is still to be done.

A Proposal to the National Trust and Historic England

Proposal: To research beyond the colonial links of the nation’s country houses, to the colonial links of the collections inside them, offering visitors an honest reinterpretation of the prolific racial imagery, present in objects and artworks throughout Britain’s country houses, through effective curation and detailed re-explanation. This is a huge task. To give a perspective of just how much work there is to be done, see below for a case study on the Armstrong Collection located in the National Trust property Cragside in Northumberland.

And who best to carry out this enormous, crucial research project? Graduates, of course! Having recently submitted high quality dissertations, essays, and research projects, university graduates are freshly versed in excellent academic writing and in-depth research. The job market is a tough place for graduates, especially at the moment, and particularly for those yearning to make a real difference to decolonising the arts and heritage sector. This kind of project could use a crack-team of the country’s hungry, ambitious graduates, expanding this opportunity beyond the niche selection of PhD researchers that have continually fallen short of effectively implementing such dramatic measures across Britain’s country homes. Graduates are unswayed by specific research into niche fields, meaning they can approach a varied project such as this with equal attention to everything, from Indian oil paintings, to African artefacts, to problematic Victorian sculptures. Besides, who better to carry out this colossal task than the fiery generation that demanded these changes in the first place?

Hardwick Hall

Re-Curating Cragside: A Case Study of The Armstrong Collection

Firstly, Cragside is not considered one of the National Trust’s ‘colonial’ properties. As I will go on to demonstrate, it is not the house or the owner which presents the problem; it is the objects inside and their interpretation (or lack thereof). This opens up even more research opportunities than initially anticipated; poorly interpreted themes of slavery and racial oppression spread like a disease through hundreds of our favourite countryside attractions, promoting subtly insidious messages that need to be openly reinterpreted. My research on the objects to follow was inspired by Caitlin Beach’s essay, ‘John Bell’s American Slave in the Context of Production and Patronage’, which is available to read in full here. The following investigation is a demonstration of the preliminary research that should be carried out across the UK’s country houses. 

Cragside House, image courtesy of Wikipedia

Cragside was the home of industrialist Lord William Armstrong (1810 – 1900), who made his fortune primarily from the invention and production of guns in Victorian Britain. It draws thousands of visitors every year, mainly to see the world’s first house to be lit by hydroelectric power. The man himself has no traceable connection to colonial endeavors or the slave trade, nor do the origins of the house. So, what is it about Cragside that so desperately needs to be reinterpreted? Answer: the objects inside.

John Bell, The American Slave [A Daughter of Eve], c.1862. Bronze patinated electrotype with silver and gold plating. The Armstrong Collection, National Trust, Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland

Armstrong had a sizable art collection, and one of his most notable acquisitions was John Bell’s sculpture American Slave, c.1862 (this work was a famous response to Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave which gained world-wide recognition at the 1851 Great Exhibition). It is a slightly-smaller-than-life-size metal sculpture with a dark, bronze-like patina. It depicts a nude black woman with a cloth around her waist, her wrists bound by heavy metal chains, with a melancholy gaze towards the floor. She is positioned in a classical contrapposto position, mimicking a typical marble sculpture of Venus, and wears heavy gold earrings.

It was a very unusual work for the time – at the turn of the nineteenth century, sculptures of slaves were being produced (although usually in white marble) as abolitionist symbols. The sculpture itself is problematic in many ways: Bell’s choice to work with dark metal rather than marble strangely acts as a symbol of contradiction, pointing out racial differences rather than uniting them. Certain aspects like the highly polished chain and lack of belly button position the statue as an inanimate object, a result of an electrotype bath, rather than as a political statement – it highlights the contradiction between the commodified body of an African slave, and the commercialisation of this body as a work of art.

The process of this kind of sculpture would have started with the sculptor physically moulding the subject’s body, implying that her body is something to be made, touched, and formed. What’s more, Bell’s choice to work with Birmingham-based metal manufacturer, Elkington & Co. could be considered inappropriate: although Elkington & Co. do not have any direct links with the Birmingham metal trade that produced the shackles and guns used to constrain and trade slaves, is two sides of the same coin. Caitlin Beach writes that the ‘…bracelets of iron for the hands and feet of slaves driven in coffles to the sea-board [were made] in the same shops and on the same benches, [as] gilt and silver buckles were made by the million for the shoes of the nobility and gentry’.

Bell’s sculpture being purchased by Armstrong adds to the problematic connotations of this object. Again, Beach writes, ‘his acquisition and display of the sculpture offer further testimony to the deeply unstable nature of Bell’s representation and the ways it could be consumed simultaneously as an expression of abolitionist sentiment, a display of wealth, and an object of desire’. Notably, Armstrong was a known supporter of abolition, however in today’s world, his purchase and display of the artwork can be seen in a different light. Its positioning in a niche inside by the grand staircase emphasizes themes of captivity; such a prominent location inside Armstrong’s home implies that he wanted his opinions to be observed by visitors.

Detail of John Bell, The American Slave, The Armstrong Collection, National Trust, Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland. Courtesy of the National Trust.
Detail of figures on cigar casket. Photograph by Caitlin Beach

American Slave is not the only artwork at Cragside that requires further curatorial attention. His possession of a cigar casket, made in c.1881, is particularly uncomfortable. An ornate glass box, gilt in bronze bamboo, supported by four bronze polychrome slaves on each corner, and placed on a blackwood base: it is a raw contradiction of his abolitionist image. The sculptural work seems to celebrate the tobacco production of the Americas, which was farmed by slaves and saw many Europeans become rich from the proceeds. Another ornate artwork which physically objectifies slaves, this work is symbolic of the confused virtues that are ubiquitous at Cragside. Contrary to American Slave, the cigar box is a forthright endorsement of slavery. Notably, the box is also displayed in a prominent position: in the centre of Lord Armstrong’s a desk, surrounded by menial ornaments. To quote Beach, the cigar box further ‘complicates the question of how, why, and to what ends slavery was represented at Cragside’. 

Armstrong’s purchase and display of both American Slave and the cigar box highlight the contrast of slavery depicted in art and industry, and its uncomfortable links with commerce and culture. In order to build on the research already being done into these houses’ links with colonialism and the slave trade, the objects inside country houses need further interpretation. Viewers may be confused by unusual sculptures such as American Slave, and the origins, conflicts, positioning and motivations of such artworks need to be further explained. The collection at Cragside does not incriminate Armstrong, but it has never been more important to fully explain the context of these artworks, leaving visitors with a well-rounded idea of the context of these country houses. The only way to do this effectively is through the transparent, inquisitive, and challenging curation of collections.


Practical Curation of Problematic Objects

Re-curating and researching the contentious objects inside country houses is a gargantuan task, and this kind of research should not be rushed. It is essential that Britain’s country houses offer a fresh and honest interpretation of these objects, and continue to challenge the existing, outdated narratives of these properties. Below is a simple list of measures which can be taken by museums and institutions to start on the journey of decolonising the display of collections, such as the collection at Cragside: 

1. Artist Collaboration. Often it is artists, rather than curators, who most successfully engage with the colonial past of a collection. They offer an extremely valuable external perspective, that can be presented through artist-led re-curation, installation, addition to existing exhibits, or additional exhibition. We can see successful examples of contemporary artists offering their perspectives to decolonise the museum space through Brook Andrew and Fred Wilson, for example. External artist collaboration is a very impactful way to reassess a colonial collection, however it is important that their work has a lasting legacy within the collection.

2. Co-production. Work with the community to uncover the stories and histories that people want to be told. This will ensure that the interpretation is relevant to the collection’s users, and up-to-date with what people want to see. Volunteers, interns, staff, and the community are indispensable sources of information; after all, a collection should represent the people who use it.

3. Co-curation. This can be an effective tool for reinterpreting collections, however the situation must be of mutual benefit, both to the organisation and to the external curators. There are too many examples of where this has gone wrong in the past, with external curators who are more emotionally invested in the objects that they are curating than the collection’s staff. It is a tricky balance to strike, but done well, co-curation can be an extremely valuable collaboration that offers new perspectives and different ways of thinking. 

4. Reorganisation. Sometimes, it is the right decision to keep objects as they are. If this helps to tell the story of the house and its owners more transparently, then by all means, let them be. However, in cases such as the cigar box, relocating the object to a less prominent position in the same room helps to quietly lower its status and impact, whilst remaining in the room to ensure that the narratives of the house, collection, and the owner are not obscured. Modern visitors find the glorification of slavery extremely uncomfortable, and perhaps the time has come to (literally) take these objects off their pedestals. This goes hand in hand with the debate on relocating vs. removing sculptures and monuments of historically controversial figures (you can read my essay on the subject here). 

5. Individual Labels. It might seem old fashioned, but a good old text panel can go a long way to helping visitors understand the context of what they’re seeing. Even better, collaborate with the community or external interpretation experts on how these text-based interpretations should be written and displayed. Personally, I am an advocate for individual labels for individual objects, particularly if they have an important story that needs to be told. With a challenging and unusual sculpture like American Slave, visitors often expect to see some sort of text-based interpretation, which will ultimately enrichen the whole experience.

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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