In Focus: Mary Toke’s portrait

In Godinton’s Great Hall sits a portrait of Mary Toke (1640-1680?), eldest daughter of Captain Nicholas Toke, with her pet dog in her lap, and her black pageboy to her side. October is Black History Month in the UK, and so it was a great chance to do some research into one of Godinton’s lesser known faces.

17th century England was not quite as white as many imagine it to be. Whilst many people think of the 18th century, and the rise of the transatlantic slave trade, to be the moment when black slaves or servants began appearing in the homes of white aristocracy, this practice had not been unusual in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly within Dutch art. Black servants became a status symbol more than anything else, a touch of the exotic: whilst they were not always technically still slaves, it is clear that they did not have the same legal status as their white counterparts.

Mary’s portrait is one of a young woman who lived a life of luxury. She has fashionable ringlets, a pearl necklace (and one for her dog), pale skin, and luxurious materials used in her dress. Similarly, she holds a lap dog who looks adoringly up at her, and her black page sits by her side, waiting to do her bidding. It oozes opulence and wealth. To include a black servant in a painting was a way of signalling the prestige and privilege of the sitter, a means of self-fashioning. The symbolism of black figures in portraiture and paintings began to change quite dramatically in the 18th century, with the rise of abolitionism: no longer was their inclusion seen as glamorous, but as a political statement, and a way of bringing up debates over abolition.

Whether or not Mary really did have a black servant is the biggest mystery of this painting. As it stands, her life is relatively obscure. She was born in 1640, the fourth daughter of Captain Nicholas Toke. In 1654/5, she married Sir Robert Moyle, a man several years her senior, who died in 1661. Much less is known about her second husband, Thomas Godfrey. Whether or not she had children, and even her death date is not immediate knowledge: she fades into obscurity following Captain Nicholas’ death in 1680. Her father’s will still referred to ‘my daughter Moyle’, to whom he left £50 (roughly £5,700 today, which would have bought her 9 cows, 12 horses, or 555 days of labour by a skilled tradesman). Little detail is known about her life, including exactly how wealthy she, or her husbands were.

The black servant could simply have been an invention by the artist to increase the status of his sitter, rather than a genuine member of her household. The life, and indeed even the role of black servants in 17th century England, is little known. As with so much of history, there are few written records from the perspective of those who were not elite, white, literate men, and therefore both Mary’s life, and her servant’s life, are difficult to trace with the records left behind. As the year goes on, however, I hope that some more digging might uncover some more about the servant’s identity…