The imposing ruin of Kirby Hall, a 16th-century country house in rural Northamptonshire, is perhaps not the most obvious setting for a contemporary exhibition on the importance of black life. But in the grand salon of this glorious estate rests a striking new portrait of James Chappell, a black man who lived and worked in this grand Elizabethan house before becoming the owner of his own pub in the village.
His presence in the room is remarkable. Chappell is dressed in the aristocratic fashions of the era – red frock coat, capricious tie – and sits in an ornate baroque chair, eyes staring proudly in front of him, his afro in full bloom. The painting is by 23-year-old artist Glory Samjolly and is one of six new works unveiled by English heritage this week as part of a bold endeavor to commemorate the long history of black life in England.
The multi-site exhibition, entitled Painting our past, was designed to tell the story of historical figures from the African Diaspora who have connections to English heritage properties. From Hadrian’s Wall to the Isle of Wight, visitors can learn about the Black Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, the orphan Princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who became Queen Victoria’s protégé, and the life of Dido Belle, a wife of mixed descent raised in an aristocratic London Georgian family.
“It is assumed that when it comes to the 17th century and later, people of the African diaspora living in the UK would be nothing but slaves. It’s a huge misconception, ”says Samjolly, who finished her play a month earlier in the spring.
The story of Chappell, a black servant to a 17th century aristocrat in rural England, could itself have been forgotten without the efforts of the Northamptonshire Black History Association, whose work has been crucial in helping English Heritage to move this story forward.
“In many cases, these stories are not overlooked, hidden or forgotten,” says Matt Thompson, chief curator of collections at English Heritage. “They are very well known but often by people who have no voice to be able to make them known.” Standing in the lush courtyard of Kirby Hall, with walking peacocks, Thompson adds, “History is written by the victors, by the people who hold power in properties like this.
Chappell “entered the service” of the Kirby Hall family, the Hattons, in 1663, at the age of about 15. He saved his owner, Christopher Hatton, from a fire in Guernsey and was able to move to the area with his wife after the Viscount’s death, when he got a pension of £ 20 a year.
“I could have painted James Chappell as a servant, but there was not enough information to determine the type of role he had, except that he was highly regarded and became a legend for having saved Sir Christopher Hatton, ”says Samjolly. “I decided to paint him in the last years of his life, with a more stoic and integral stance, a sort of man who would look back on his life and be proud.”
English Heritage, which became a charity in 2015, looks after more than 400 historic sites across the country, including medieval castles, Roman forts and a Cold War bunker. The vast majority – 92% – of the organization’s revenue comes from visitor entries (10 million per year), memberships, events, retail and fundraising. The government grant ends this year. The organization is keenly aware that work needs to be done to ensure it remains inclusive. A spokesperson said: “Shedding light on previously under-represented or overlooked stories allows us to better capture – and better understand – our shared past.”
To that end, Thompson says work on uncovering forgotten or deleted stories began in 2007, and explains that the Painting Our Past project was conceived long before the murder of George Floyd and the rebirth of Black Lives Matter in the public consciousness.
“It’s been a long journey,” says Thompson. “Our mission is to tell the story of England, and most importantly we wanted to make sure that we get as broad a story as possible about England that reflects the realities of society at the time, as well as the importance of reflecting society as it is today.
As to whether this story will be welcome or not, Thompson is not swayed.
“People have every right to their opinions, but we’re not making things up,” he says. Does the organization anticipate a backlash? “We add to the stories associated with these places in the most positive terms. All I can say is that it is happening.
Whether people like it, agree with it, believe it or not, it is real. It is based on research and knowledge and scholarship, sources and evidence show us that it is What we’re doing is expanding that story.