What was hanging in the drawing-room of 6 Gower Street in 1898?

One day in 1898 Dr William Garnett, secretary to the Technical Board of the London County Council, called at 6 Gower Street, home of Louisa and Fanny Wilkinson, close friends of their next-door-but -one neighbours, Millicent Fawcett and Agnes Garrett.

Dr Garnett was there to assess whether Louisa Wilkinson could qualify as a professional bookbinder and, hence, be eligible to attend bookbinding classes at the recently-founded Central School of Arts and Crafts.

In theory, women were not barred from these classes, but as, so often, practical difficulties were put in their way. In this case, the powerful (male) bookbinding trade unions threatened to forbid their members to work at the School if women were allowed to undergo the training offered. They feared that the entry of women into the trade would drive down wages. The threat was sufficient; women were excluded.

Louisa Wilkinson, who had taken lessons from Douglas Cockerell and had exhibited two books bound by her at Goupil’s Gallery, had challenged the decision not to allow her entry to the bookbinding classes. If she could prove that she was a professional bookbinder, the School would find it rather more difficult to refuse her. Hence the purpose of Dr Garnett’s visit; he was there to discover, from observation of her surroundings, her status – whether professional or amateur.

Dr Garnett was kept waiting in the drawing room for Louisa to appear. He had time to make his judgment of the house, which he included in his report:. ‘Its appearance inside and out was that of a residence of a professional man with an income of not less than £1000 a year.’  In fact no man lived on the premises – 6 Gower Street was the home – and work place – of two women, although one, Fanny, was certainly a professional – a landscape gardener. Dr Garnett’s attention was particularly attracted to a portrait hanging in the room, so much so that he included mention of it in his report, noting that it appeared to him to be a ‘far above the average painting in oils.’ Once she had arrived, Louisa informed Dr Garnett that the painting was by Gainsborough. Perhaps the possession of such a painting was one more nail in the coffin of her hopes: could a woman who owned such an object be considered to be a trade worker?

This is the painting in question – a portrait of Mrs Sarah Walker  – in 1936 given by Fanny Wilkinson to the Tate Gallery, associating Louisa, who had recently died, with the gift. .Sarah Walker, who looks an interesting, perhaps rather sardonic and stubborn woman, was their mother’s great-grandmother; born in 1714 she had died in Manchester in 1789.  Sarah’s grandson, George Walker (1789-1838), apparently an ardent republican, had emigrated to the US, where, near Philadelphia, he had set up the first practical farm school in America. It may be that Fanny inherited her interest in horticulture from this grandfather, as surely she and her sister inherited something of their great-grandmother’s evidently strong character.

After George Walker’s death his daughter, [Letitia] Louisa, made the journey back to Manchester, where she  married a prominent local physician, Matthew Eason Wilkinson, becoming the mother of several children, including Fanny and Louisa,.  It is probable that the portrait of Mrs Sarah Walker had also criss-crossed.the Atlantic, to then spend 40 years or so gazing down on the company that assembled in 6 Gower Street – a company of female horticulturalists, educationalists and suffragists. Now, re-catalogued ‘in the manner of Thomas Gainsborough’ it forms part of the Tate Collection. Alas, there, Sarah Walker may well be confined to the darkness of a storeroom; I do not remember ever seeing her in the flesh, as it were. If so, she is in good company; the Annie Swynnerton’s portrait of Millicent Fawcett being another permanent fixture in the same store .

For more about Fanny and Louisa Wilkinson see Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle.

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