Judges’ Lodgings museum to chronicle Lancaster’s slavery past thanks to £55k grants

Judges’ Lodgings museum has secured £55,000 to fund a new project that will explore the story of Lancaster’s famous furniture making firm of Gillows and the city’s troubled history with slavery.

‘Facing the Past: Enslaved Africans Art Commissions and Gillows Gallery’ is one of more than 40 projects to receive a Reimagine Grant from the Art Fund, the national charity for art. The partnership project will completely redevelop the Gillows Gallery and produce some new commissions of enslaved Africans, on-site.

Judges’ Lodgings, which is run by Lancashire County Council, has secured £50,000 from the Art Fund’s Reimagine Grants, with the Regional Furniture Society also providing £5,000.

The new Gillows Gallery at the museum will tell the story of one of the most important regional furniture makers in British history over three centuries and the people involved including founders, partners, employees, apprentices, clients and customers. This story covers the company’s growth as a regional maker during the height of English furniture design in the 18th century and its links to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery in the West Indies.

A series of new portraits based on historical descriptions of Lancaster’s ‘runaway slaves’ will also be commissioned for the project. These will be displayed opposite existing portraits of those who made their wealth through the slave trade or West Indies Trades, including that of Abraham Rawlinson, who served as a Member of Parliament for Lancaster from 1780 to 1790.

Lynda Jackson, Museum Manager of Judges’ Lodgings, said: “We’re delighted to be telling the full history of Lancaster including evidence of Black presence here and the wealth that flowed into the city from both the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the West Indies Trade.

“This new investment from the Art Fund and Regional Furniture Society will help us to share the world class Gillows furniture collection with an even bigger audience and mark a new chapter for Lancaster’s oldest town house.”

The project will see a complete overhaul of Gillows Gallery, which holds the largest collection of Gillows furniture on public display anywhere in the world.

Spanning three centuries, the exhibit will chronicle entire history of Gillows – one of the most important regional furniture makers in British history – exploring its role in the transatlantic slave trade and how it profited from a new West Indies colonial trade in exotic woods and fine furniture.

Nick Humphrey Grants and Bursary Secretary, Regional Furniture Society and Curator in Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Dept at the Victoria and Albert Museum, said: “The Gillows collection at Judges’ Lodgings is of regional, national and international significance to British furniture, and the fascinating history and work of the company richly deserves to become more widely known.

“The redisplay of the Gillows gallery can be a major museum event in the UK arts scene. The Regional Furniture Society is pleased to support the project through the largest grant it has ever awarded.”

Lancashire County Councillor Peter Buckley, cabinet member for community and cultural services, said: “It is important that we do not gloss over our history so we can learn from our past to build a better future.

“These generous contributions will allow Lancashire County Council Museum Service to explore Lancaster’s troubled history with the slave trade, further enhancing what is already a brilliant attraction in Judges’ Lodgings.”