Black Chiswick Through History

With November already upon us, Nadege Forde-Vidal from our Visitor Experience Team reflects on the first month of our Black Chiswick Through History project and shares our exciting plans for the next phase through to Spring 2022.  

Throughout October, our team of volunteers has collated important documents and resources that have revealed even more black lives connected to Chiswick House, its residents and the local community. They have conducted their own archival research, discovered original letters and important references, located publications and continue to dedicate their time to the process of gathering evidence. 

The material has already been explored as part of several workshops with Chiswick School and Hogarth Youth & Community Centre who will be ‘putting the colour back into Chiswick’ (their words, not mine) over the coming months in a variety of visual and textual responses across the site. The resources that the volunteers helped to uncover will enable these members of our local community to find their own personal ways of reanimating the people of colour whose histories are intimately connected to the House and Gardens.   

The staff and volunteers have already learnt a great deal throughout the process – not just about the black presence at Chiswick House, but also the wider free black community in Chiswick and Greater London, and the influential black figures represented in our collection – Like Alessandro di Medici and Mohammed bin Haddou.  

Alessandro di Medici was the first Duke of Florence, a dedicated patron of the arts and sciences whose mother was African and from whom many of Europe’s Royal families are descended.  

Mohammed bin Haddou, was a Moroccan Ambassador who arrived in England in 1681. He visited the Oxford colleges, gave a lecture at the Royal Society and impressed the court and public alike with his impeccable manners and diplomacy. 

Both individuals demonstrate that racial stereotypes and categorisation are modern ways of thinking. Through the inclusion of these positive black role models Chiswick House will begin to present a more honest version of its past self. 

We have recovered recent archival research that suggests there were at least three free black skilled members of the 4th and 5th Dukes of Devonshires’ households – one of whom, Jean Baptiste Gilbert, was Georgiana’s hairdresser and milliner for over a decade, the others were a father and son tailoring team with their own business in Covent Garden. 

So many new avenues of research have presented themselves – many more individuals of colour found to be intimately linked to our collection, and much information to begin sharing both on-site and digitally. We will spend the winter and early spring uncovering what remains below the tip of the iceberg. Our findings will inform new interpretation, exhibitions and displays, and will continue to inspire our collaborations with the community and other local heritage sites as well as influencing the way in which we present our archive. The future looks bright for Black Chiswick through History, and we look forward to keeping you up to date with our progress.