From Warwick To Tobago A History Untold

‘At What Cost?’ was a project that explored the work of infamous landscape architect, Capability ‘Lancelot’ Brown, at Warwick Castle and the connections that they had to the slave trade.

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 beatfreeks.com/at-what-cost 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.

Beatfreeks is no stranger to developing controversial works. At What Cost was borne out of our pioneering work at Croome Court to engage young people in bold conversations around heritage. This project directly built off that work by reaching out to a black and asian audience who might be hesitant to engage with a traditional english heritage site where they don't see themselves or their interests reflected. Anisa Haghdadi, Founder and CEO of Beatfreeks said “this project has been incredibly powerful, for the artists involved and the audience, to experience a different narrative about history. We're extremely pleased with the result and hope to continue to build on this work in future. I’d like to offer thanks to our young producer, Aliyah Holder, for curating the project”.

Melissa Paniccia, Head of Historical Interpretation at Warwick Castle said “Building this connection between Warwick Castle and the ‘At What Cost?’ Project has been both insightful and rewarding as we have thought deeply about how we interpret our own history. It has been an important step in widening our access and appeal to black, asian and minority ethnic communities from across the Midlands. Theproject offers a new way of experiencing historic sites such as castles and stately homes using art, design and spoken word to connect with more diverse audiences. In addition, it complements the country-wide celebration of the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown’s birth, by exploring his life, role and contributions from a new angle.” 

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”.

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Notes to editors:

“Beatfreeks is a youth engagement agency supporting young, creative people to do what they love. We believe empowered, engaged and enabled young people are incredible catalysts for bringing about positive change, so our number one aim is providing platforms for growth and expression to young people. We try our best to build progression routes and meaningful legacies into each of our opportunities. We exist to help young people develop and grow.”

About the Capability Brown Festival 2016

1.         The Capability Brown Festival unites 21 partner organisations in the UK’s largest festival of its kind to date.  It marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in August 1716.

2.         The Festival is managed by the Landscape Institute and is funded with a £911,100 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional match funding and funding in kind from the Festival’s partners and supporters.

3.         Many Brown sites, including those not normally open to the public, will host special events, tours and activities throughout 2016.

4.         More information can be found at www.capabilitybrown.org or @BrownCapability

Amerah Saleh

Spoken word artist. Head of Creative Learning at Beatfreeks. Loves bowties and creating change (not in that order).