Number 2 Gower Street – just past the north-east corner of Bedford Square in Bloomsbury – was home to Agnes Garrett from 1874. She lived there first with her cousin and partner, Rhoda, and then with her widowed sister, Millicent Fawcett, and Millicent’s daughter, Philippa. Rhoda died in the house in 1882, as did Millicent in 1929 and Agnes in 1935. Philippa continued to live there alone for several more years. The Garretts, thus, had an association with this one house for well over 60 years. The fact that it was the home of Dame Millicent Fawcett, ‘pioneer of women’s suffrage’, is marked by the blue plaque on the front of the house.
2 Gower Street is now the central London campus of Royal Holloway College which was most generous in allowing me access when I was researching the work of Rhoda and Agnes Garrett. In addition, in January 2012 I had the pleasure of spending an evening there, giving a talk on the Garretts’ interior design business to members of the Camden History Society. Afterwards we all had a chance to wander around, spotting the elements of design that might be attributed to the Garretts. One of the best rooms is the first-floor back, the ceiling of which was painted by Rhoda and Agnes. Seen by lamplight on a dark wintery night it did look most attractive.
Although an effort has been made to make the interior of the house look a little less institutional than in the recent past, it did strike me how strange it was that there was not one visual reference to the long Garrett occupation. For instance, a series of etchings (I think) of what appeared to be northern European market towns, while being attractive, do nothing to give meaning to the rooms in which they are hung.
Coincidentally, a few days after that talk, I saw an advertisement for Royal Holloway’s MA in Creative Writing, one of the ‘pathways’ of which is ‘Environmental Writing’ (‘Place, Environment, Writing’). Looking at the website I saw that the accompanying photograph shows Prof Andrew Motion, the biographer of Keats, whose portrait the Garretts included in the ceiling next door, conducting a seminar in the Garretts’ drawing room. How ironic, I thought, that they should be discussing a sense of place in a place from which all sense of a past has been excluded.
I emailed Andrew Motion to make this point and received an immediate and very supportive reply – suggesting I write to his head of department. Well, I did so, but met with silence. I suppose universities have more pressing matters to attend to.
But how easy and inexpensive it would be to add a few pictures to that seminar room and show an awareness of its past history.
For instance, an enlargment of this – showing the same room in 1875 – as depicted in Rhoda and Agnes’s book, House Decoration.
And here is a photograph, held in the National Portrait Gallery, of Agnes attending to the grandfather clock in the corner just to the left of the fireplace. The portrait in the background is that of Philippa Fawcett by Harold Rathbone. And here is Millicent Fawcett conducting the women’s suffrage campaign from her desk in the corner on the fireplace’s right.
That is just a beginning – I could suggest many more illustrations – all inexpensive to access – of designs, people and occasions that would bring a sense of place back to the house that was the centre of so much activity during the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. How pleased I would be if Royal Holloway were to take my suggestion seriously.
For much more about Millicent Fawcett and Agnes Garrett see Elizabeth Crawford, Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle