Launched in 2021, Black Chiswick through History is our community research project which seeks to re-interpret our collections through interconnected black and white narratives. Here, Project Curator Raj Pal shares his own change in perception on discovering our unusual painting of Moroccan ambassador Mohammed bin al Attar.

I’ve driven past Chiswick House & Gardens several times over the last forty years without even spotting the entrance off one of the busiest roads in the country. I expected my short commission as curatorial lead for their Black Chiswick through History project to be relatively straightforward.  Yes, I’d have to do some research to see what I could unearth from the organisation’s history to connect it with its multi-cultural hinterland, but this is a challenge faced by many cultural institutions. Having worked in various 18th century heritage properties, at most I expected to find some evidence of the wealth of a prominent family being linked to the trade in humans and goods between Africa, Britain and its colonial possessions across the Atlantic. What I didn’t foresee was their embarrassment of riches that would transform my own world view. Here I’m going to focus on one such object in the collection.

On my first day, Visitor Services Assistant Nadege Forde-Vidal, who is hugely knowledgeable about the history of the place, offered to take me on a tour of the House. After the ground floor, we headed on up to the main domed room festooned with what I can only describe as ‘the usual suspects’ of 17th and 18th century: busts of various Roman emperors (although I was to learn later on that there’s one of Caracalla, of north African and Levantine parentage, in a foul mood) and various rich and powerful Englishmen. Amidst all that I suddenly found myself gazing at an unusual painting of a very good-looking man (a 17th century Keanu Reeves if you will) on a horse. I’m astounded to discover that he is the Moroccan ambassador and Nadege and I end up having a wonderful conversation about this fascinating character.

CHISWICK HOUSE Detail of “Mohammed Ohadu” by KNELLER Sir Godfrey and Jan Wyck (1640-1700). Credit: The Moroccan Ambassador | Art UK

During his six months embassy (1681-82), to promote peace and an anti-Spanish alliance between Morocco and England, Mohammed bin al Attar was treated with great pomp and pleasantry. Indeed, in January 1682, he presented himself at the Banqueting House to the King and his queen consort. Gifts were exchanged and excited crowds followed him everywhere he went, particularly as he displayed his horse-riding prowess in Hyde Park. The ambassador and his party were invited to banquets and private estates, they toured famous sites in London, including Westminster Abbey, plus Oxford, Newmarket, Windsor and Cambridge. (The archives at Lincolns Inn show his signature in their records.) Everywhere they went the King gave strict instructions to treat the ambassador’s party with exceptional courtesy and respect. Whether or not he visited Chiswick House is unclear, but what’s interesting to me is how the Moroccans and the English related to each other during this era.

CHISWICK HOUSE “Mohammed Ohadu” by KNELLER Sir Godfrey and Jan Wyck (c1640-1700) Credit The Moroccan Ambassador | Art UK

Contemporary accounts of the time tell us that the ambassador, a practicing Muslim, was seen as the representative of a monarch of equal standing to King Charles II and he was lauded for his intellect, good manners, learning and curiosity. Nadege and I are both astounded at how attitudes, particularly towards Muslims, have regressed since the 17th century. And yet, we’re excited by the possibilities that this painting at Chiswick House allows us to connect the Moroccan ambassador to Britain today.

A few weeks later, hosting a visit by students from Chiswick School, I notice the group suddenly come alive when we look at the painting and it sparks a long discussion. Everyone is fascinated by the unusual back story. Two students of Muslim heritage tell me they have chosen to focus on the painting as their project and we discuss the various ways in which they can interpret it.

I have used this one object to make a broader point that is pertinent to heritage properties such as Chiswick House as they seek to broaden their audience base to reflect the diversity of their local area. My work at Chiswick, helped by individuals such as Nadege, who passionately believe in the project, has largely focused on taking a fresh look at heritage collections. This new way of seeing helps us to engage with audiences in ways that also enlarge the pool of knowledge for the benefit of all. We’re creating new stories that not only educate and entertain our visitors, but also make them feel, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” That is precisely how I felt as I experienced a change in my own perception of the place and its immense possibilities.

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