Mysterious stone artwork found in Derbyshire garden resembles town's controversial Black's Head carving

A mysterious artwork uncovered in a Derbyshire garden and resembling a town’s controversial Black’s Head carving is to go up for auction.

Monday, 21st February 2022, 9:25 am

The stone head has the same frown and smile as a wooden caricature that was displayed in Ashbourne for many years.

A petition branding the wooden carving racist and offensive and signed by thousands led to its removal from above The Green Man & Black’s Head Royal Hotel sign in John Street in 2020.

Now the lookalike stone carving is set to raise up to £3,000 when it goes up for auction on March 31 this year.

Smiling stone head that was found in an Ashbourne garden (photo: Hansons)

It owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “We moved into the house 30 years ago. It has a quarter of an acre of garden and the brambles were head high. It was so overgrown it took me two years to clear the ground. I found the stone underneath a load of brambles at the bottom. No one had been down there for years.

“I used it as a garden ornament for a long time but now it’s stuck in a passageway, unseen, so I’ve decided to sell it. If it’s an important historical object connected to Ashbourne’s past, perhaps it should be in a museum.”

Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons Auctioneers, said: “It’s a truly fascinating object. Ashbourne is a town rich in history and heritage and, when news of the find emerged last December, I know it sparked major interest among locals.

“That is partly because the carving bears a striking resemblance to a controversial Black’s Head wooden caricature which was displayed in Ashbourne for decades.

The wooden Black's Head carving in Ashbourne was on show for decades before it was removed in 2020 and placed in storage.

“I understand that the wooden Black’s Head is now in Matlock Records Office and that Ashbourne Town Council wishes to take ownership of it.

"Respected historians have different ideas about the origins of the Black’s Head. One theory is that it’s a symbol from the crest of the notable Shirley family from the area. Others think it resembles Francis Barber, a Jamaican servant boy who accompanied renowned writer, poet and playwright Dr Samuel Johnson on his visits to the town.

“Local folklore suggests the head is smiling at people as they approach the town and frowning as they leave, this being symbolic of the fact the boy was delighted to visit Ashbourne but sad to leave.

“Whatever the truth or your views may be, it’s part of Ashbourne’s unique heritage. The discovery of this stone version adds another strand to the story.

Stone head frowning (photo: Hansons/Mark Laban)

"We will never know how or why a stone carving resembling the Black’s Head ended up in a garden in Church Street, or exactly how it’s connected to Ashbourne’s history.”

The stone head will be offered in Hansons’ March 31 Fine Art Auction. Further entries invited until March 10. Catalogue due live March 24 at www.hansonslive.co.uk. To find out more, or to arrange a free valuation, email Isabel Murtough: [email protected]

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