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Portait of John Ystumllyn (1754) on display in the Garden Museum

Newly on display in the Garden Museum this week, this portrait of the Welsh gardener John Ystumllyn (c.1738-1786) is an exceptionally rare depiction of an eighteenth-century Black man painted in his own right. Ystumllyn is one of Britain’s earliest known Black gardeners, but much of what is known of his life comes from a short biography written over a century after his death, based on the testimony of his descendants and local folklore.

According to the biography he came to Wales in the 1740s after a member of the Wynn family captured him aged eight off the coast of Africa and brought him to Britain, although John’s descendants believed that he was already living in London before he came to the Wynns. John himself maintained that it was while chasing a moorhen in the woods near his home that a group of white men abducted him and carried him off to a ship. John’s birth name is unknown, as after he arrived in Wales he was named after the Wynn family home Ystumllyn in Gwynedd. It was there, while working as a gardener in the hills overlooking Cardigan Bay that, according to its inscription, this portrait was painted on 11th May 1754.

The presence of Black servants in European households was common during this time, often appearing anonymously in British portraiture. Much of the Black population of Britain in the eighteenth-century had been transported into the country through the slave trade, while some had travelled to the country as sailors or to study in order to assist their families in trade with Europeans.

John Ystumllyn eloped with a local girl, Margaret Gruffydd, and went on to have several children with her, one of whom served as huntsman to Lord Newborough. John ended his days in his own house surrounded by a large garden and is buried in the parish churchyard where his tombstone still stands. Its Welsh inscription reads ‘Born in India, to Wales I came / To be baptised / See this spot, a grey slate marks / My cold resting place.’

John’s descendants still live in Wales, and in 2021 the Ystumllyn Rose was bred to commemorate his life as a gardener.

See the portrait on display in the Garden Museum now.

Lent by Anthony Mould Ltd from a private collection.

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