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A Bittersweet Heritage: Slavery, architecture and the British landscape by Victoria Perry

26 May 2023

Alexander Faludy looks at how the plantations shaped great estates

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

SO, MOURNFULLY, sings the Mock Turtle to Alice on Wonderland’s shores — tearfully recalling exotic delicacies of yesteryear. He is met by terse scepticism from the Gryphon (an ancient allegorical symbol for Christ): “It’s all his fancy, that: he hasn’t got no sorrow, you know.”

“Mock turtle” was the Victorian nickname for absentee sugar-plantation owners prone to lamenting their supposed material decline after the final abolition of slavery (1833). Now unable to afford real Caribbean turtles to furnish meat for soup, they were reduced to a substitute made from boiling a calf’s head and hoofs — ungainly extremities that poke out from the shell of Alice’s entertainer. The Gryphon’s reproof suggests that the lament won’t pass scrutiny from Christian morality.

When “Lewis Carroll” — the Anglican deacon Charles Dodgson — published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the mock turtles’ visibility was receding into the obscurity that shrouded the origins of many landed families’ wealth until recently. Victoria Perry’s A Bittersweet Heritage illuminates how Caribbean profits shaped not only family trees, but the planting and painting of Britain’s landscape — and the mansions erected thereon.

The vast sweeping lawns leading the eye up to the Palladian splendour of buildings such as Danson Park (London) and Harewood House (Yorkshire) seem so “natural” that we forget that they once advertised conspicuous consumption. Such prodigally unproductive use of agricultural land was possible only because it was subsidised by profits from the Boyd and Lascelles families’ plantations respectively.

Today’s visitors usually compare the elaborate plaster ceilings of England’s neo-Palladian villas to wedding-cake decoration. Originally, the simile worked counter-wise. Owners commissioned (enormous) “Twelfth Day” cakes annually for Epiphany. Their sugar-moulded motifs directly reproduced the ceiling designs, while reprising the source of the wealth underpinning both.

Pictorial intermesh went further. Caribbean wealth allowed magnates to refashion Britain’s landscape, creating views patterned on arrangements pioneered in oils by the likes of Claude Lorrain. The English watercolourist George Robertson then produced topographical views of colonial estates which softened the strangeness and harsh social conditions of Caribbean landscapes to look like home.

The aesthetic results are delightful, but, given the association with slavery, truly abittersweet heritage”.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.


A Bittersweet Heritage: Slavery, architecture and the British landscape
Victoria Perry
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