In the post ‘Garrett Laburnum’ I mentioned that I had come across a sliver of wallpaper designed by Rhoda and Agnes Garrett as a photo in a book by one of Agnes’ pupils, Millicent Vince. Being curious, I wondered what I could find out about Mrs Vince and her work.
I discovered that she had been born Emily Cohen in Birmingham in 1868, the daughter of Adolph Cohen, a Hamburg-born watchmaker and diamond dealer. There was clearly artistry in the family; one of Adolph’s watch case designs (1871) is held in the National Archives Design Register. Her mother, Juliana, was Scottish. Emily, who was known as ‘Millie’ or ‘Millicent’, had 3 sisters and a brother, the family living for many years at 27 Frederick Street, in the city’s Jewellery Quarter. Her brother, David, also became a diamond dealer, eventually moving out of Birmingham to live at The Old Stone Manor, Upper Oddington, Gloucestershire.
I would imagine that the family was Jewish, although it would seem doubtful that Millicent, at least, was observant. There is no hint of the sisters having any paid occupation until, after their father’s death, in the 1901 census the eldest sister, Jessie, is shown as running a typewriting agency. Emily is living at home.
However, in the 1911 census Jessie no longer has an occupation, while the 1908 London Directory that I happen to have to hand shows ‘Miss M. Cohen’ running her own business as an Interior Decorator from Oakley House (14,16,18 Bloomsbury Street).There is no trace of Emily Cohen in the 1911 census, either under her given name or her diminutives. She was at that time living at 68 Great Russell Street, just round the corner from her office, but is not listed in the enumerator’s book as being expected to be there on census night. I would not, however, jump to the conclusion that she is absent because she heeded the suffragette call to boycott the census. There is likely to be a more prosaic explanation – such as a holiday abroad.
So in 1908 Millicent Cohen was living just down the road from Agnes Garrett’s house at 2 Gower Street. Did her pupillage with Agnes Garrett occur after 1901? – perhaps between then and Agnes’ retirement in 1905? The fact that she chose to set up business so close by might indicate that she inherited the goodwill of Agnes’s business. She clearly was very fond of her, dedicating Decorating and Care of the Home to ‘Agnes Garrett Pioneer of Women House-Decorators My Teacher and Friend’ and writing of her in the feminist paper, The Woman’s Leader, in 1925.
Millicent’s training probably followed closely that which Rhoda and Agnes had enjoyed. In a footnote she reveals that as a student she made drawings of the woodwork – mantelpieces and panelling – from building such as Aston Hall, Juniper Hall and Kew Palace; Rhoda and Agnes had had entry for just such a purpose to many of the great houses of England.
On reading Decorating and Care of the Home it is obvious that Millicent Vince shared many of the views on what constituted an ideal home as set out by Rhoda and Agnes Garrett nearly 50 years earlier in House Decoration (Macmillan, 1875). The emphasis is always on light and simplicity.
For instance, for country cottages Mrs Vince recommends the Swedish style – light-painted furniture, perhaps decorated with discreet stencils – thinking this preferable to the dark ‘country’ furniture usually thought suitable. This is a timeless look: today’s ‘country decorating’ magazines such as Country Living and Homes and Antiques usually feature at least one home dressed in such a style. In fact Mrs Vince clearly had a penchant for Sweden – leaving bequests in her will to two Swedish friends, one being the 1912 Olympic tennis player, Ebba Hay.
After setting up in business Miss Cohen soon made a name for herself, being quoted thus in article by Sarah Tooley, published in the Everywoman Encyclopaedia around 1910. ‘Are you not afraid of your workmen?” a lady asked Miss M. Cohen, one of our most accomplished designers and decorators. “Afraid of my workmen?” replied Miss Cohen. “Why, I count them all among my friends. They are willing, polite, and obliging, and it has done me good to know them.” This was very much the attitude to her workforce that Agnes Garrett had displayed throughout her working life.
Having probably not commenced in business until she was in her mid-30s, Millicent Cohen’s life took an interesting turn when, in 1915, she married Charles Vince. He was the son of a Cambridge fellow (and former headmaster of Mill HillSchool), had been educated in Birmingham and, when they married, was 28 to her 48. I am not sure whether or not she continued in business. After her marriage she no longer appears to have an office address, but the telephone directory lists ‘Mrs M. Vince’ rather than Charles. After the war he was in full-time employment as publicity secretary of the Royal Naval Lifeboat Institution and may not have needed the listing for professional purposes – while Millicent did. But that is perhaps a deduction too far.
After a brief sojourn in Hampstead Garden Suburb (Mrs Vince, while finding the Suburb’s cottages agreeably quaint on the outside, is a little scathing about their practicality), the couple lived in Brunswick Gardens, Kensington, first at 42 and, after 1936, at 27.
Although in her book Mrs Vince mentions in passing many decorating commissions that she had undertaken, all of them are anonymous. If it was difficult to identify Agnes Garrett’s clients, it seems impossible now to discover those to whom Mrs Vince brought the luxury of tranquil surroundings. For that was her aim. This photograph is taken from Decorating and Care of the Home and I rather think is of a room in her own apartment. The wallpaper looks very much like Morris’s ‘Willow Bough’, the paper she had selected for illustration alongside ‘Garrett Laburnum’.
Apart from her books, Millicent Vince’s will is the only document I have seen that gives any other clue to her personal life. In that she makes clear her affection for her husband and siblings and, among many bequests, are ones to the woman-run Lady Chichester Hospital at Hove and one of its doctors, Dr Helen Boyle, and to Kensington feminist designer and enameller, Mrs Ernestine Mills.
Mrs Vince’s other two books are Furnishing and Decorating Do’s and Don’ts, Methuen, 1925 and Practical Home Decorating: how to choose your decorations and how to carry them out yourself, Pitman, 1932. Here are details of the copy of Decorating and Care of the Home that I have for sale.
For more on Rhoda and Agnes Garrett ‘House Decorators’ see Elizabeth Crawford, Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle.