This is an oil painting of a pineapple grown in Sir Matthew Decker’s garden in Richmond, Surrey. The painting by Theodorus Netscher, made in 1720, is a celebration of the successful cultivation in England of a pineapple plant that actually produced fruit.
During the 18th century, a pineapple cost the equivalent of £5,000 today. They became such a symbol of wealth that the pineapple motif was used to decorate buildings – John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, built a 75ft-high stone pineapple atop a pavilion in his estate in 1761 (below).
Though native to South America, pineapples (scientific name: Ananas comosus) made their way to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and it was here that Christopher Columbus first spotted their spiky crowns in 1493. Despite dogged efforts by European gardeners, it would be nearly two centuries before they perfected a hothouse method for growing a pineapple plant.
Thus, into the 1600s, the pineapple remained so uncommon and coveted a commodity that King Charles II of England posed for an official portrait (above) in an act then symbolic of royal privilege — receiving a pineapple as a gift. But was it a gift? Or had the pineapple been grown in his own hothouse? According to post entitled, “A pineapple? . . . Gosh, thank you Mr. Rose” on the Parks & Gardens UK blog, that question remains to be answered.
What is for certain is that on 9th August 1661 John Evelyn noted in his diary that he “first saw the Queene-Pine bought from Barbados presented to his Majestie…the first that were ever seen in England were those sent to Cromwell foure years since.”
Certainly plants must have survived the journey more than once, because King Charles used pineapples again on 14th August 1668, to impress the French ambassador, by serving them at a banquet held in his honour. Evelyn was there too and tasted “that rare fruite called the King-Pine” because ”his Majestie having cut it up, was pleased to give me a piece off his owne plate to taste of.” Sadly, Evelyn was mildly disappointed by the taste because “in my opinion it falls short of those ravishing varieties of deliciousnesse described in cap. liggons history & others but possibly it might be, and certainly was, much impaired in coming so farr. It has yet a graceful acidity, but tastes more of the Quince and Melon, than of any other fruite he mentions.”
Of course, all this assumes that it is John Rose in the picture. This attribution comes from Horace Walpole who had the original painting hanging in the Breakfast Room at Strawberry Hill. It features in his description of the house as ” a most curious picture of Rose, the royal gardiner, presenting the first pine-apple raised in England to Charles 2d, who is standing in a garden. The whole piece is well painted , probably by Dankers. It was a present to Mr W from the Rev.Mr Pennicott of Ditton, to whom it was bequestheed by Mr London, grandson of him who was partner with Wise”. [A description of the villa of Horace Walpole,1774].
Author Lucy Ingless tells us more about 18th century pineapple cultivation in an article on The Foodie Bugle:
“In 1735, twenty-one year old American Robert Hunter Morris accompanied his diplomat father on a trip to London and on the 30th of June visited a friend’s garden of ‘luctutious plants’ (does this mean succulents?), which included ‘the pineapple, of which he had a great many and they seemed to flourish very well. They grew in pots of earth which were set in a bed of tanners bark’. Incidentally, Robert was an interesting young character, who was very conscious of his father’s welfare and notes many tiny details about London life that would otherwise be missed. His London diaries are short and worth a read if you come across them.
“An article on education in the London World during 1755 makes casual reference to the pineapple thus:
“Through the use of hothouses…every gardiner that used to pride himself in an early cucumber, can now raise a pineapple.”
“By 1772, pineapples were no longer the preserve of those with hothouses of their own. They were available to purchase at the markets, and also as plants to take home and grow for yourself, or with which to stock a nursery. I love the sound of Andrew Moffett’s ‘Pinery’ on Grange Road in Southwark, where ‘Fruiting and Succession Plants’ were to be purchased of the largest and sweetest sort, guaranteed ‘free of insects’.
“As the 18th century went on, the pineapple became a common theme on dishes, plates, teapots, tea caddies and even in architecture. Many believe it symbolises hospitality.
“By February 1798, any problems with planting environment had clearly been overcome, as Mr William North, at his Nursery near the Asylum in Lambeth, Surrey, was advertising new forms of dwarf broccoli above his pineapple plants. The advertisement from the Morning Chronicle gives an insight into 18th century horticulture, and also gives rise to the excellent title of this post: “To the curious in vegetables”. It is interesting to see that by this stage, the pineapple was worthy only of a nota bene but also interesting to note that a London tradesman was content to advertise not only the largest selection in England, but also in Europe: The largest collection of Pine-Apple Plants and Grape Vines in Pots for the Hot-house, &c., in Europe, with every other article of the first quality in Horticulture.”
The pineapple entered the broader Georgian culture in a number of ways. The phrase ‘a pineapple of the finest flavour’ was a metaphor for the most splendid of things. In Sheridan’s popular play The Rivals, Mrs Malaprop exclaims: ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness.’
Even after growing pineapples on English soil became a possibility, getting hold of one was still so costly that many nobles didn’t eat them, opting instead to simply display them around their homes as one would a precious ornament or carry them around at parties. Those who weren’t quite as affluent could rent a pineapple for a few hours at a time. This pineapple would be passed around from renter to renter for their respective parties over the course of several days until finally being sold to the individual who could afford to actually taste it.
Pineapples held pride of place on dinner tables and on Negri’s tradecard below, the premises soon to be known by the name of “Gunter’s.”
There were also pineapple-shaped cakes, pineapple-shaped gelatine molds, candies pressed out like small pineapples, pineapples molded of gum and sugar, pineapples made of creamed ice, cookies cut like pineapples and pineapple shapes created by arrangements of other fruits. There were also ceramic bowls formed like pineapples, fruit and sweet trays incorporating pineapple designs, and pineapple pitchers, cups and even candelabras.
An original eighteenth-century pineapple pit was discovered at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. In 1997, after much historical research and horticultural effort, the pinery saw its first twentieth century fruit – grown just as it would have been done in the past. In a nod to Charles II, the second pineapple produced there (the first was sampled by the staff …) was delivered to Queen Elizabeth on her 50th wedding anniversary. For an in-depth and technical look at the structure of early English hothouses and the construction of a “pinery,” see this post on the Building Conservation website.
Click here to read more on age old growing techniques and the world’s most expensive pineapple.
John Singer Sargent, the son of an American doctor, was born in Florence in 1856. He studied painting in Italy and France and in 1884 caused a sensation at the Paris Salon with his painting of Madame Gautreau. Exhibited as Madame X, people complained that the painting was provocatively erotic.
The scandal persuaded Sargent to move to England and over the next few years established himself as the country’s leading portrait painter. Sargent had no assistants; he handled all the tasks, such as preparing his canvases, varnishing the painting, arranging for photography, shipping, and documentation. He commanded about $5,000 per portrait, or about $130,000 in current dollars. Following are portraits representative of Sargent’s prolific, and much prized, portraiture featurning British subjects.
In light of the pop cultural phenomenon of Netflix’s Bridgerton series and its multicultural alternative reality take on the books, Kristine has graciously allowed me to revisit and update this article, originally published in 2011.
I once had a dream, as I devoured Regency romance after Regency romance in my college years. Or more accurately a question. Could I write a Regency with a heroine who was Black? It was born perhaps from being a child of the ‘70’s who remembered the momentous day she first saw a Black actor in a toothpaste ad, as though Madison Avenue had finally realized we used such products too. And also, perhaps, because of a seed planted by a college history class that spoke of Lord Dunmore’s promise to take slaves who fought the British back to England in victory, but never knowing whatever came of it.
The research began telling its own stories. Of Queen Elizabeth I’s unenforceable decree to remove “blackamoors” from England to ease the burden of the poor on the country. Of Black courtiers taken from Portuguese vessels in King James IV Scottish court, including the Black Lady of the Tournament of the Black Knight and Lady. How Lord Dunmore’s promise indeed landed many Black soldiers, not unlike other soldiers without family returning from war, into London’s poorer streets. Of African princes educated at university, of Ignatius Sancho, a shopkeeper who left behind his own unique vision of England’s middling class. Of the blurring of free Black and slave within England itself, highlighted by the tales of Mary Hylas, stolen from her husband because her former masters changed their minds about her freedom, and the famous Somerset Case, a cornerstone in the fight to abolish slavery, presided over by James Murray, Lord Mansfield and Chief Justice. Of Lord Mansfield’s own unique brush with race within his household. Of a queen whose reflection buoyed a cause and spoke to how intertwined we all truly are.
So began an eternal obsession with all things Black in Britain (and in other parts of Europe for that matter). I claim not so much to be an expert as an enthusiast, but like all enthusiasts I can’t help but to talk a bit about a favored subject, one to underscore why I like keeping the idea of Black History Month, and not trying to relegate it to African-American History Month or dismiss it altogether, because there’s so much more to the story than ever happened on American shores.
Many books have been written on the history, the social mores: a fascinating blend of class and race that resembled more 20th-century America’s struggles than the oversimplified, misapplied stereotype of a pre- and post-antebellum South. Far more than one could squeeze into a single blog. So I’ll spotlight some notable men and women, focusing on the Georgian and Victorian eras. A list of books follows for those who may want to indulge their own curiosity further.
Kidnapped from what is now Nigeria and sold into slavery in childhood, he was a slave to a Royal Navy captain and a Quaker merchant before earning the price of his own freedom. He then traveled the world, including in an aborted attempt to reach the North Pole. Coming to London, he became involved in the abolitionist movement which led to his writing and publishing his famous autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African (1789), considered to be the first known English account by an African on his native country.
Her Majesty was not Black in the sense of self-identity, or of one being born of direct or closely mixed heritage. Her ancestry is still debated. Commonly her ancestor, Margarita de Castro e Sousa of Portugal, is identified as the reason for Queen Charlotte’s appearance. Multiple family lines can be traced between the queen and Margarita, who was of Moorish or Mozarabic descent, with the idea that extensive inbreeding among noble houses led to Charlotte’s unexpected appearance. Both of those ethnic religious groups include Berbers, who are native to a broad area of North and West Africa. As for the term “Moor,” by the 1500s, it was used to mean Muslims or anyone with dark skin, though sometimes “blackamoor” and “White Moor” were used to distinguish between the two.
What is documented is that the queen’s “negroid” or “mulatto” features were remarked upon by her contemporaries — including her personal physician — and likely used as a symbol by some in the anti-slavery movement. Sir Allan Ramsay, an abolitionist himself, was the artist responsible for the majority of her portraits and his representations of her were the most decidedly African. He also married the niece of Lord Mansfield and was therefore related by marriage to Dido Elizabeth Belle.
The queen was a patron of the arts, supporting Bach and Mozart, and an avid amateur botanist, taking great interest in expanding what became Kew Gardens.
In 1772, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Chief Justice, ruled in the Somerset case that slavery in England had “no binding in law.” It did not abolish slavery in England but made it illegal to remove a slave from England against that person’s will. No record exists of what Dido thought of her great-uncle’s landmark slave case. But surely some of the ramifications crossed her mind as she went about tending the chickens and what other genteel chores were hers in Kenwood, his country estate.
She was born of a West Indian slave, Maria Bell, later spelled “Belle,” and Captain Sir John Lindsay of the Royal Navy, Mansfield’s nephew. Her very existence in Mansfield’s home became a prism of attitudes of the day. Some merely noted her presence. American visitors remarked in surprise when she joined the family after dinner. Scholars have argued whether she was tolerated or beloved family. It was ironic that her great-uncle felt the need to reiterate her status as a free woman in his will, in which he also left her £500 plus £100 per year. This in addition to the £1000 her father had left her in his will.
In 1793, she married John Davinier, a steward, or senior servant, likely of a friend of the Murray household.
Born in east Poland, Bridgetower debuted in Pairs at the age of nine, playing a violin concerto by Giornovichi. Soon after he was taken to England by his father and performed in concert. However, many in Society felt the senior Bridgetower mistreated his son, and in 1791, the Prince of Wales (later George IV) paid the father to leave the country. From that point, Bridgetower was under royal protection. For 14 years he was first violinist in the prince’s private band. He became friends with Ludwig van Beethoven in 1803 while on concert tour in Austria. He accompanied Beethoven in the first public performance of Violin Sonata no. 9, later known as the Kreutzer Sonata, having never seen the piece before. It was originally dedicated to Bridgetower — the Sonata Mulattica — but the dedication was changed after the two quarreled. He was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in 1807 and would later perform with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
The first American to fight for the London Prize Ring championship, Molineux was a slave who was reportedly given his freedom after winning a match on which his owner had placed a large bet. He sailed to England in 1809 to become a professional prize fighter. In London, he met another Black American, Bill Richmond, a former boxer who became his trainer. He fought his way up the ranks, eventually meeting the British champion, Tom Cribb, on December 18, 1810. He seemed to be winning handily, and in the 23rd round he apparently knocked out Cribb. However, Cribb’s corner claimed he had been fouled, and the long argument that ensued gave the champion a chance to regain his senses. Cribb eventually won by knockout in the 33rd round. It was later discovered at one point in the 30th round that Molineux had fractured his skull.
Born in New York City, Aldridge moved to England in the 1820’s and studied acting. Despite setbacks early in his career in London due to racism, he became famous across Europe for his leading roles in Shakespearean plays including King Lear, Macbeth and Othello (pictured). He returned from his European tours so loaded with honor even the London West End stage could no longer exclude him and he finally played the famed Lyceum. In 1858, Aldridge became the first actor to be knighted when he was bestowed the Royal Ernestinischen House Order by Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen (now part of Germany) becoming Chevalier Ira Aldridge, Knight of Saxony.
A native of Kingston, Jamaica, she learned her nursing skills from her mother who kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers and from trips with her husband to mainland America and England. In 1854, she asked the English war office to be sent as an army nurse to Crimea. Because of her ethnicity she was refused. Undaunted, she funded her own trip to Crimea where she established the British Hotel, an officers’ convalescent hospital, near Balaklava. On the battlefield she nursed the wounded and was known as “Mother Seacole.”
Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T. F. Earle, K. J. P. Lowe, 2010 reissue.
Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, 2003.
Britain’s Black Past, edited by Gretchen H. Gerzina, 2020.
Freyer, Peter. Staying power: the history of Black people in Britain, 1984, fifth printing 1991.
Gerzina, Gretchen. Black England: Life Before Emancipation, 1995. Also published as Black London.
Kaufman, Miranda. Black Tudors, 2018.
Lorimer, Douglas A. Color, Class and the Victorians, 1978.
Scobie, Edward. Black Britannia, 1972.
Walvin, James. Black and White: The Negro in English Society, 1555-1945, 1973.
by Kristine Hughes Patrone
Recently, I was Googling portraits of the Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence (as one does) and the search returned images that were decidedly not Wellington. And I must say, some of the sitters were exceedingly handsome, and some of them were portraits I hadn’t seen before. So I Googled some more and you’ll find the results of my search below. Enjoy!