The constellation of symbols (anchor, drum and ship) offer a set of triangulation points to raise discussion around Victorian garden aesthetics, horticulture, plantations, migration and communication. The double-drum (Dono Ntoaso) is drawn from the Adinkra lexicon, a set of Akan symbols used by the Gyaman (also known as Ashanti) people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The symbols’ meanings are linked to fables and used to convey wisdom and knowledge. The Dono Ntoaso symbolises united action, alertness, goodwill, praise and rejoicing.
The then existing municipal borough at the time, Willesden (1874 – 1965) purchased the site that was to become Gladstone Park in 1900. The park takes its name after William Gladstone (1809 – 1898) a British statesman and politician, who had recently died. He served for twelve years as the UK’s Prime Minister over four non-consecutive terms between 1868 and 1894. He also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer over a twelve year window. The William Gladstone association lay in the time he spent on one of the properties on the estate, Dollis Hill House.
William Gladstone’s father, Sir John Gladstone (1764 – 1851) was a merchant and slave owner. After the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, under the Primeminstership of Charles Grey, John Gladstone received more than £90,000, about £9.5m in today’s terms, as compensation for the slaves they were forced to free. He received the largest of all compensation payments made by the Slave Compensation Commission. Gladstone and Slavery (2009) by Roland Quinault is insightful on William Gladstone’s views in this context: “His stance on slavery echoed that of his father, who was one of the largest slave owners in the British West Indies, and on whom he was dependent for financial support. Gladstone opposed the slave trade but he wanted to improve the condition of the slaves before they were liberated.”
The Demerara Rebellion of 1823 was an uprising on a plantation owned by John Gladstone. The rebellion was believed to be instigated by slaves Jack Gladstone & his father Quamina. Involving more than ten thousand enslaved people and lasting two days the rebellion resonated across the world and was a spur to the anti-abolition movement.
The name of one of John Gladstone’s plantations in Guyana was “Success”. I used this as the basis for an unrealised ground-mural proposal for the park, which has since taken other graphic forms.
In 2021, the then Conservative Government issued new legal protection for what the government’s press release described as “England’s cultural and historic heritage”. Clearly reacting against the call for the removal of particular statues and alterations of names of squares, parks, rooms, streets and so on, led to the brandishing of the suspiciously pithy phrase ‘retain and explain’. One can see the attraction to certain institutions, at one level it’s the closest to doing nothing (depending on the labour invested in the ‘explaining’). There is also a financial cost for councils to the changing of names, removal of signage, changing of letterheads, administrative costs of updating the system – which is another factor behind the reluctance. The cost of an affective pain is pitted against an economic one.
In the Victorian and Edwardian garden control of the land is performed through the regulation of the planting border. The neater the border the more it signified one had the financial and human resources to maintain the border.
Following discussion with Antonia Couling about the multiple readings one could take from the shapes, she devised a planting plan specific to each of the symbols, which she outlines here:
Writing about a work that contains live and growing elements, brings a vital element of inconstancy to the system. This is particularly apt when considering a work that might be incorporating historical legacies as a subject. In this sense, although the work is perennial, different elements will flower in different seasons. These flowerings over time can also be read as metaphorical for the different readings embedded in the work – and recognise their own temporality.
On the day the work was formally launched, 14 October 2022, a local drumming group performed by the Dono Ntoaso flowerbed. There was also a poetry reading from Brent-based poet Yasmin Nicholas. Antonia and I gave a tour of the flower beds for local invited residents explaining some of our ideas and the decision-making process.