From Warwick to Tobago - A History Untold

07.10.2016 | category: General
Artwork by Letisha Stewart-Green
Artwork by Letisha Stewart-Green

Beatfreeks, Capability Brown Festival, Landscape Institute and Warwick Castle teamed up to curate a day of visual art and spoken word poetry talking about the connections of the transatlantic slave trade to Warwick Castle.

In 1749, Warwick Castle’s owner Francis Greville, Lord Brooke, commissioned Capability Brown to work on Warwick Castle’s grounds. This was the first independent commission Brown had received following his employment as Head Gardener at Stowe. Brown’s technique was to craft man-made landscapes inspired by natural habitats and harness the beauty of nature’s untamed characteristics - which was extremely controversial in Georgian England. Brown often used “exotic” plants like the Cedar of Lebanon and wildlife in his gardening taken from trips abroad .

Throughout the Georgian period, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was at its height, with tens of thousands of (predominantly West African) people being sold into Slavery in the West Indies and the Americas. Many of the landowning aristocracy in the UK were beneficiaries of Slavery, particularly in the West Indies, and many also owned plantations and slaves. Francis Greville, the 1st Earl of Warwick, likewise had a plantation in Tobago and is likely to have commissioned Capability Brown with profits from slave labour.

‘At What Cost?’ engaged with BAME audiences from the heart of Birmingham to explore the impact of Brown’s work on black, asian and minority ethnic communities from the past to modern day. It explored the political, social and economic conditions surrounding the era of Brown’s work at Warwick Castle particularly focussing on the impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We asked ‘at what cost?’ was the landscape built and bring light to the forgotten voices and stories which traditionally might not be shared.

The project commissioned 6 young artists aged 16 – 25 from BAME backgrounds to use graphic design, illustration and spoken word to create a series of ‘postcard poems’ which were shared/distributed on site and online. The project began with a research day at Warwick Castle and culminated in a curated event on 1st October 2016 in the Coach House to celebrate the first day of Black History Month. We then worked with the young people to curate a sharing of 50 people to bring new young audiences to Warwick Castle from Birmingham and surrounding areas. The end pieces of work will be available from and on site at Warwick Castle. The pieces range from a young girl showing a tree from her back as a metaphor of profiteering through to a landscape picture of Warwick Castle today with African Kings and Queens crafted beautifully through oil painting. The poetry captured the mood of the work; complex and emotional. Poet, Rue The Kid, writes “who knew, my black body was bread and butter for broken nations”.

The project overall was a huge success for all involved both challenging and encouraging this new way of working.

“It was fantastic to see the Beatfreeks in action on Saturday at Warwick Castle! I was very blown away.” - Catherine Hempenstall, Capability Brown Festival

Director of Capability Brown Festival Ceryl Evans says “The Capability Brown Festival is delighted that Beatfreeks have looked below the surface of the beautiful Capability Brown landscapes to address some of the underlying historic injustices which underpinned C18th British society.  It is so important that the subject of slavery and its role in funding the British economy is not forgotten.”

About the Author: Amerah Saleh, Head of Campaigns & Experiences, Beatfreeks.