Archive for category The Garretts and their Circle
Suffrage Stories: House Decorating and Suffrage: Annie Atherton, Kate Thornbury, And The Society of Artists
In Suffrage Stories: ‘Home Art Decorator’ To The Queen – And The ‘Human Letter’ – I told the story of Charlotte Robinson, her sister, Epsey McClelland, and her niece, Elspeth McClelland. I have now been alerted to the existence of another of Charlotte’s sisters, Mrs Anne Atherton, who also worked in the art world – as the co-founder of the Society of Artists. In my rummaging around I had come across mention of this ‘Society’, which operated from premises in New Bond Street, London, but had not made the connection to Charlotte Robinson and Epsey McClelland.
Anne Elizabeth Robinson was born in Settle, Yorkshire, in 1849. Known as ‘Annie’, she was the fourth child of Henry Robinson and his wife, Elspet, two years younger than Epsey and nearly ten years older than Charlotte. I can discover nothing of her life before her marriage in 1870 to Francis Henry Atherton. The son of a solicitor, he had been born in Wiltshire in 1840 and was, therefore, about ten years her elder. I presume that until her marriage Anne had lived at home in Yorkshire, but after their marriage the couple disappear. I cannot find them on the 1871 census and have only caught up again with Annie Atherton in 1881 when she was living at 103 Warwick Road, Paddington, with her sister Epsey McClelland, her brother-in-law (John McClelland, an accountant) and a visitor, Kate Thornbury. Epsey and Anne are each described as ‘Artist (Painter)’ and Kate Thornbury is ‘Secretary’. In fact Kate Thornbury was secretary to the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage from 1877-c. April 1881.
I don’t know when the Atherton marriage broke down. From later evidence I know that Francis Atherton was a mining prospector and it may be that he and Anne were living abroad in 1871, hence their absence from the census. But at some point Annie Atherton returned to England (if she had indeed been away) and entered into a close friendship with Kate Thornbury that was to last the rest of their lives.
According to Annie Atherton’s obituary (The Suffragette, 28 November 1913), she and Kate Thornbury had founded the Society of Artists thirty-two years earlier –that is, in 1881 – perhaps around the time that Kate left her position as secretary to the suffrage society. However in 1887 (in a letter published in the Pall Mall Gazette – see below) Kate dated the formation of the Society to 1883 and it would, perhaps, be sensible to accept this as the correct date. The couple took premises for the business at a very good Mayfair address – 53 New Bond Street – and remained there – and then at no. 52 -until 1914. No. 53 is now occupied by Dolce and Gabbana – and, from the look of it, the façade of the building may well be much the same now as it was in the 1880s. In 1886 Kate Thornbury was also working as secretary to the Froebel Society from no. 53.
It is difficult to discover the exact nature of the Society of Artists. It doesn’t appear to have been a Society in the sense of having members, rather it offered premises in which artists could exhibit. All the reports of exhibitions that I can find are of work by women. Moreover the ‘work’ was usually of a ‘craft’ nature, not fine art. It would also appear that the Society of Artists operated, at some level, as a house decorating business, competing in the same field as Annie’s sisters, Charlotte Robinson and Epsey McClelland.
I sense that the relationship between the two establishments, the Society of Artists and that of Charlotte Robinson, was, for a time at least, not entirely harmonious – for the 27 December 1887 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette carries a letter from Kate Thornbury in response to ‘Ladies as Shopkeepers’, the article by Emily Faithfull that had appeared in the previous week’s issue (for more on this article see Suffrage Stories: ‘Home Art Decorator’ To The Queen – And The ‘Human Letter‘). Kate Thornbury expresses her ’great astonishment [that she found in this article] no mention whatever of Miss Robinson’s elder sister Mrs Atherton, who, as Miss Faithfull is well aware, had started a large business under her own superintendence in New Bond Street, London, under the title of the Society of Artists, for the sale of all kinds of artistic work, house decoration &, in the year 1883. Mrs Atherton it was who first braved ‘that bugbear which terrifies most women – the loss of social status’ and the great success which attended (and still attends) her venue induced Miss Robinson twelve months afterwards to open a similar business in Manchester, under the same name. In Miss Faithfull’s zeal for the prestige of the younger sister with whose success she is identified , she has shown a strange forgetfulness of Mrs Atherton’s claim as the originator of the movement which finds such merit in Miss Faithfull’s eyes.’
Armed with the information that Charlotte Robinson’s business in Manchester traded, at least initially, under the name the ‘Society of Artists’, I have now found corroboration in the form of a report (Manchester Courier, 30 March 1886) which, when referring to the fact that Charlotte Robinson was setting up a type-writing office in the city, mentions that she was ‘well known in connection with the Society of Artists’. One would have thought that there must have been some agreement with Annie Atherton and Kate Thornbury that allowed Charlotte to use their business name, but, three years or so later, the letter betrays a distinct note of rancour, aimed perhaps more at Emily Faithfull than at Annie’s younger sister.
Descriptions of the actual work exhibited by the Society of Artists are rather scant. This, from The St James’ Gazette, 7 April 1898, is one of the more forthcoming, describing how poker-work photograph frames ‘in straight bands of vivid colours – red, yellow and green – set amidst the dark poker-work..and beaten pewter and copper frames make much pleasanter Easter gifts than the usual flimsy eccentricities sold for such. The society has also the most delightful green ware to match its green furniture. It’s very pleasant to house one’s frocks, one’s candles, one’s flowers and plants all in the same harmonious tone of green.’ Well, there’s not much to choose between this artless prose and that of today’s house magazines (which, incidentally, I love, while laughing at their writing style). A report of an exhibition organised by the Society of Artists in Aberdeen in 1888 described their wares as ‘decorative novelties’, which seems a fair summary.
I have found only two clear indications that the Society of Artists was involved in house decoration. In its issue of 19 December 1904 the Derby Daily Telegraph mentioned that Elspeth McClelland was, most unusually for a young woman, studying architecture at the Polytechnic in London and that ‘she has occupied a post as a designer at a large firm of decorators, known as the Society of Artists.’ So, any rancour that may have existed between the Robinson sisters in the 1880s had long since been forgotten and in the new century the Society of Artists had welcomed Annie Atherton’s niece, Elspeth, as a member of its team.
The second reference comes nine years later when the Pall Mall Gazette (10 November 1913) reported that ‘a well-known Princess who is fitting up a “lordly pleasure-house” for herself in the neighbourhood of the Bois de Boulogne, has given the internal decoration into the hands of the Society of Artists. The society has an excellent habit of collecting ancient beams and panelling, and the Princess’s Parisian mansion is being transformed into an old English manor-house, after the fashion of Haddon House. In the Princess’s house there are to be great open fireplaces, panelled walls, and an entirely new wooden staircase is being put in.’ The next paragraph refers to the work of a woman architect, Mrs Elspeth Spencer (née McClelland), this juxtaposition making me wonder if she could have been involved with the Parisian project. Annie Atherton had just died and Kate Thornbury was 65 years old – was the younger generation now directing the work of the Society of Artists?
For years Annie and Kate had a London address, 12 Horbury Crescent, Kensington, and for a time had a country cottage at Peaslake in Surrey – the 1891 census found them living there in the quaintly named ‘Jottel [??] Hutte’. Annie Atherton is ‘head of household, Kate is ‘Friend’ and they had a young local girl as a servant. However by 1901 they had left arts-and-craftsy Peaslake for a house in Shire Lane, Chorleywood. This house was, rather charmingly, named ‘Chums’, which might speak something of how they saw their relationship. In the 1901 census Anne is given as ‘head of household’ and Kate as ‘joint owner’, while they are both described as ‘artists’. Their next-door-but- one neighbour on one side was Charles Voysey, who lived until 1906 in ‘The Orchard’, the arts-and-crafts house that he had built in 1899 for his family, while on their other side lived another architect, Charles Simmonds. At the very least Annie and Kate must have known Voysey on a social level but I wonder if their ‘decorative novelties’, while ‘craft’, would have appealed to his spare ‘Arts and Crafts’ sensibility.
In 1911 both Annie and Kate boycotted the census. The Registrar completed their form, recording their relationship as ‘sisters’ and knowing enough to describe Annie’s occupation as ‘Society of Artists’. Across the form is written ‘No Votes No Census. When women become citizens they will fulfill the duties of citizens.’
On the 1881 and 1891 censuses Annie Atherton gives her status as ‘married’ and by 1901 as ‘widowed’. However on her death in 1913 the Probate Register describes her as ‘wife of Frank Atherton’ – and that seems to have been her true status for there is no evidence that she was divorced. In fact Francis Henry Atherton appears on the 1911 census, aged 70, mining prospector, living with his ‘wife’ , Julia, and five of the seven children born to them, at Langhurst Manor, Witley, Surrey. [Incidentally, for more about the house, which Atherton presumably leased from the publisher Edward Arnold who had built it in 1908, see here.] The children, who had all been born in Queensland, Australia, ranged in age from 19 to 10 and Atherton stated on the form that he and Julia had been married for 25 years. In fact this was an untruth twice over. Not only was he, apparently, still married to Annie Atherton, but a marriage ceremony between him and Julia had taken place at St Pauls, Covent Garden as recently as 10 September 1907. It seems inconceivable that Annie Atherton did not know that her husband and his family were living in Surrey and that, as it appears, he had committed bigamy. One can read on-line the oath he swore that there was no legal impediment to this marriage and, incidentally, that his bride, Julia Walford, was a widow. This, again, was another untruth as ‘Walford’ was her maiden name; their Australian-born children were registered with Francis Atherton as their father and Julia Walford as their mother. Perhaps it was felt that back in England propriety demanded that the liaison should appear more regular. Had he asked Annie Atherton for a divorce and been refused? I wonder if any reader of this post will know the answer.
When Annie died in 1913 the executor of her will was, naturally enough, Kate Thornbury. Kate died in 1920 (incidentally leaving £100 to the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship) having appointed Clara Garrett her executor. The latter was the wife of Samuel Garrett, brother of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett, and Agnes Garrett – and, guess what, I’ve just put two and two together and realised that Clara was Kate’s sister. Of course it’s a small world but I wonder if this overlap between the Robinson and Garrett family circles extended to an overlap in house decorating taste. Could Annie Atherton and Kate Thornbury have initially been inspired by the example set by the firm of R & A Garrett? Clara Thornbury drew her sister into the Garrett Circle when she married Samuel in 1882. Could conversations with Agnes and Rhoda have given Kate and Annie the idea of launching the Society of Artists a year later? At the very least the two couples must have had many interests in common – suffrage and applied art being the most obvious. Were Annie and Kate entertained at 2 Gower Street by Rhoda and Agnes and, later, by Agnes and Millicent? Were their decorating tastes similar? Did they visit each other’s shops? Buy each other’s wares? Who knows.
It is a pity that for a post concerned with the visual I have no illustrations to use. I know of no likenesses of Annie Atherton or Kate Thornbury, have no images of rooms they decorated, or the goods they sold. Despite the longevity of their business they seem to have left a fainter mark on history than Charlotte Robinson, who had Emily Faithful as her promoter.
I am most grateful to Thamar McIver who is researching suffragettes in Pinner (where Elspeth McClelland lived) and first brought Anne Atherton to my attention. The rest is – a sort – of history.
Those of you who might happen to be passing through the Atrium of Parliament’s Portcullis House between now and early November can view a compact display that I have curated there. The subject is Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the Early Women’s Suffrage Movement: 1867-1897.
There is also an online version of the exhibition – which you can view here.
Suffrage Stories: Fawcett Society Wreath-Laying Service for Millicent Garrett Fawcett, St George’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, 2 July 2016
Each year on 2 July the Fawcett Society holds a short service and lays a red, white, and green wreath in remembrance of Millicent Fawcett in St George’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey.
For it is in this small chapel, which now also holds the Coronation Chair, that the joint memorial to Henry and Millicent Fawcett is sited.
It was originally erected in 1887 in memory of Henry Fawcett, who had died in 1884, and was the work of the sculptor Alfred Gilbert. Ironically Gilbert’s daughter, Caprina Fahey, was later a very active member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, rather than of Mrs Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. For after Millicent Fawcett’s death a commemoration of her life and work was in 1932 added to her husband’s memorial – in the shape of two roundels, one of which contains the insignia of the NUWSS.
This year I was honoured to have been asked to speak a few words about Millicent Fawcett during the Service – and below is the text of my address.
I imagine I’ve been asked to give the address today because over the last 20 years I’ve researched and written about the various enterprises and campaigns that Millicent Fawcett – and her immediate circle – conducted through the second half of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th. But I first made direct physical contact – as it were – with Millicent Fawcett some years before I began my research –back in the mid-1980s – when, as a book dealer – because I sell books about women as well as write them, I braved the closing-down sale of a Bloomsbury bookshop. I say ‘braved’ because it was owned by an elderly irascible gentlemen who barked at any potential customer ‘what do you want’? Well the joy of such bookshops is that you don’t know what you want until you find it – so after one such encounter I’d never been back. But closing down was different and customers were given the run of the shop.
Down in the cellar I found the floor covered with a heap of books – splayed open, piled on top of each other – and – serendipity – when I picked out one I found it to be a short popular biography of Henry Fawcett –not, actually, very interesting in itself – but – and my heart leapt – with Millicent Fawcett’s bookplate pasted inside the front cover. I believe this book had lain in the bookshop ever since Philippa Fawcett finally gave up the family home at 2 Gower Street to move to a more manageable flat just before the Second World War. It is only too likely that books surplus to her requirements had been sent to this nearby bookseller. There seemed a very thin veil separating me from the past when I held that book in my hand.
So this bookplate is the first of four images I want to recreate for you this evening. It probably dates from the 1880s – it has very much the flavour of the Aesthetic movement. Millicent’s full name – Millicent Garrett Fawcett – takes centre place. To the right is a woman in a loose fitting gown, with bare feet, head turned towards the rising sun. To the left rises a lily, so much of its period, and beneath the name are scattered books and an inkwell and quill pen. The caption is ‘Truth is the Light’.
‘Light’ – the image of the rising sun, of hope, of the New Dawn – was one that permeated all the campaigns for women’s rights – not just for the vote – but for emancipation in all spheres of life. ‘Truth’ was the leitmotif running through Millicent Fawcett’s life. In an article her cousin Edmund Garrett, a boy she had helped bring up after the early death of his parents, wrote: ‘More even than by her writings or her speeches, she has helped the cause by her influence, her tone, her personality. The impression which she has made upon public men who have come in contact with her has been, perhaps, her most valuable service to it. The one thing that she cannot be doing with is doubleness. Anything the least ‘shady’ in quite small matters of money or of conduct damns a man at once.’ Edmund Garrett goes on to mention the Ibsen-esque quality of Millicent’s novel Janet Doncaster which, as well as giving a delightful portrait of a thinly-disguised Aldeburgh, does, I think, reveal more of her character than she disclosed in her autobiography. It is well worth a read.
So – Millicent Fawcett was guided by her principles. These at times, especially in attempts to effect an equal moral standard between men and women, could put her at odds with other campaigners, even members of her family. For instance, she and her sister Elizabeth held opposite views as to whether the Contagious Diseases Acts should be repealed – Millicent for and Elizabeth against.
But strong principles – an adherence to Truth –and being true to oneself – don’t necessarily make for any easy life. My second image recreates a scene that is not one you’ll find in either Millicent’s autobiography or in Ray Strachey’s fond biography – it is very trivial, but I think, revealing. One summer afternoon Millicent was taking tea in Lady Maude Parry’s garden in Rustington in Sussex. Lady Maude was the wife of Hubert Parry, whose music has, of course, echoed so often within this Abbey –and it was Hubert, rather than his wife, who was a close friend of Agnes Garrett and Millicent Fawcett. Indeed he’d built a house in Rustington to be close to one that Agnes Garrett had rented there for years.
Anyway, as they were taking tea Lady Maude was stung by a wasp and that evening confided to her diary that Millicent hadn’t been very sympathetic – penning the immortal phrase ‘There’s something hard about the Garretts’. Perhaps I’m perverse but I like that comment. I think it is true – the Garretts were hard – in that they had enjoyed a robust upbringing – encouraged to think for themselves and be self-reliant – Lady Maude was very much more conventional – and although Lady Maude may have meant the comment pejoratively – we shouldn’t take it as such. In her biography Ray Strachey felt compelled to dispute the notion that Millicent was ‘compounded only of “thrift, industry and self-control without any of the gentler virtues”’, stressing that it was Millicent’s great ability for practical friendship that made her such a popular and effective leader. She didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, she didn’t waste time on emoting; she did things. I’m sure Millicent would have ensured that Maude was treated with a blue bag or whatever was the current remedy for a wasp sting, but wouldn’t have seen it as an occasion for high drama. As Edmund Garrettt wrote ‘She is, above everything, ‘sensible’. She never stickles for unessentials’. The success of a principled, disciplined woman such as Millicent Fawcett was due to her ability to focus on what was important, dismissing the setbacks – the wasp stings –that punctuated all the various campaigns with which she was associated during a career of over 60 years.
Above all Millicent Fawcett was – in her conduct of the constitutional suffrage campaign – calm and diplomatic. As Ray Strachey wrote, ‘Her task was to provide convenient ladders down which opponents might climb, and to help them to save their faces while they changed their minds.’ It was this skill that finally allowed women over 30 to be given the vote in 1918. Although Millicent Fawcett recognised that this age discrimination was quite logically indefensible she knew that once they’d won this measure – full equality would follow. By letting anti-suffrage MPs appear to have retained some control, she had at last manoeuvred women onto the electoral register. As she said, ‘We should greatly prefer an imperfect scheme that can pass, to the most perfect scheme in the world that could not pass.’
The third image takes us into Millicent’s home, 2 Gower Street. From standing in that Bloomsbury bookshop basement, holding a book that had once been on a shelf in the house, fast forward about 30 years to 2014 when I spent some happy hours with a colleague inside the house as we tried to work out how it was used when Millicent, her daughter Philippa, and her sister Agnes lived there. Agnes and her cousin Rhoda had taken on the lease in 1875 –running their pioneering interior design business from the house –Rhoda had died in 1882 and Millicent and Philippa had moved there after the death of Henry Fawcett in 1884. So Garretts had lived in 2 Gower Street for roughly 65 years. We know that Millicent conducted her campaigns from the first floor drawing room – which runs across the front overlooking Gower Street – sitting under a lovely ceiling, painted by Rhoda and Agnes – pale green, pink and yellow prettiness – featuring hummingbirds and swags and flowers, with portraits of four great artists in the corners. Do look up and give her a thought if you go past. The National Portrait Gallery holds a photograph of Millicent (see here) working at her desk in that room in 1910.
The desk, a tall bureau, is tucked into the alcove to the side of the fireplace and Millicent is sitting there working through a pile of letters, looking up for a moment to turn to the photographer. This domestic scene was the power house that fuelled the 20th-century constitutional suffrage campaign. In addition – from that desk Millicent Fawcett involved herself in a wide range of disparate, though interconnected campaigns – for instance, the international women’s suffrage campaign, the campaigns for opening up university education to women, for raising the age of consent, for opening up horticulture as an employment for women, for criminalising incest, for providing homes for middle-class working women, and even for offering a new German ‘open-air treatment’ to men and women suffering from TB. This last was prompted by the fate of her cousin Edmund who had contracted the disease – but rather than wringing her hands Millicent, with her friend Dr Jane Walker, just went ahead and built a sanatorium in Suffolk where the new treatment might be carried out.
Sitting at that desk Millicent is neat in a tailored costume, but my last image is of her standing in the St John’s Wood studio of a very well-known photographer – Lena Connell – dressed for a more formal portrait. She is posing, but, as ever, conveys an air of subtle reticence. I think we can be pretty certain she didn’t make her appointment with Lena Connell because she wanted more photographs for her own album – but, rather, was prepared to endure the process for the sake of the Cause. For, thanks to a lucky discovery a few weeks ago – in a locked drawer in a Fawcett Society desk – we are now able to deconstruct that photograph and realise that she is presenting herself as the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
For on her breast she is wearing a beautiful pendant given to her by the NUWSS in 1913. Presumably after Millicent’s death Philippa Fawcett had returned the pendant to the London Society for Women’s Service, the precursor of the Fawcett Society, and as time went by its existence and meaning had been forgotten. But that photograph speaks to us now – for engraved on the reverse of the pendant are the words that sum up the values that her co-workers appreciated in Millicent Fawcett – ‘Steadfastness and Courage’.
When we booked to stay for a few days at a Landmark Trust apartment (see here) at the top of a venerable building in The Close in Salisbury I was relishing a brief immersion in the world of Trollope and had entirely forgotten that even here I would be treading on the heels, as I do in London, of one of my heroines – Millicent Garrett Fawcett.
But I soon remembered that at the end of 2013 (a lot has happened in between) I had travelled down to Salisbury to give a talk on the Garretts to the Salisbury Local History Group. I had come and gone in the dark and had seen nothing of Salisbury. But now, in February 2016, armed with my research for that talk, I was able to follow a brief Garrett/Fawcett trail around the city.
For this is the house in which 23-year-old Millicent Fawcett was staying on the night of 2 April 1871. The census records her here, together with her husband, Henry, his sister, Sarah Maria, and her parents-in-law, William and Mary Fawcett. The household was supported by one 16-year-old housemaid. William Fawcett is described as ‘J.P. and Alderman’ and Henry as ‘Professor of Political Economy’; the women have no occupation. Millicent and Henry’s daughter, Philippa, who would have been nearly three years old, is not visiting her grandparents on this occasion. She had been left at home in London in the care of three servants.
Nor, ten years later, did she join her parents when, on 3 April 1881, Millicent and Henry are once again paying a visit to Salisbury and staying in this house with his parents. Philippa, now a 12-year-old schoolgirl, is back home at 51 The Lawn, Vauxhall. Henry is now ‘Postmaster General and MP’, Millicent is ‘Authoress’ and the elderly Fawcetts now have two servants.
These sightings on the census forms demonstrate that Millicent was no stranger to Salisbury and its Cathedral. The Close is a quiet world, dominated by the soaring building at its centre – a building that would all too soon have a poignant association for her. For Henry did not live to feature in another census, dying in 1884.
Here is the memorial tablet placed on the interior Cathedral wall, together with one to his sister, with whom Millicent was always on friendly terms.
Henry’s parents did not long outlive him.
Besides his tablet inside the Cathedral Henry was given a very much more prominent memorial – a statue in Salisbury’s Market Place. It so happened that his back was at the centre of my view as I ate a celebratory meal at a restaurant in Ox Row overlooking the Market Place – clearly I am fated never to be far from the world of the Garretts. Rather oddly, however, Henry Fawcett is positioned on the edge of the large open space and appears to be addressing a crowd waiting at the bus stop outside Debenhams. One might have imagined that he could have been placed facing the other way, into the Market Place where crowds might have gathered to listen to him. But I did note that the elucidatory plaque at the foot of the statue (which is also written in Braille) does include mention of his wife, Millicent, as leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
Another Garrett associate – the sculptor Ellen Rope – has a work in Salisbury Cathedral – although you’d be hard pressed to find it if you didn’t know it was there.
Here it is. Although they knew nothing of it by name, the Cathedral staff have access to a list of the building’s memorials and were very helpful in taking me to find it. The rectangular plaque is the work of Ellen Rope and is dedicated to the memory of Mrs Moberly, wife of George Moberly, bishop of Salisbury. As you see, it is hidden behind a cupboard (in the Vestry). I wonder if there are pieces by any other woman sculptor in the Cathedral? Is it just fate that it is a woman’s work that is hidden in this way?
You might also be interested in reading my book – Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle – for details see here.
The Garretts And Their Circle: A Talk At The Royal Society of Medicine To Celebrate The 150th Anniversary of Elizabeth Garrett’s Qualification As A Doctor
On 28 September 1865 Elizabeth Garrett succeded in qualifying as a doctor and as such is hailed as the first woman in Britain to do so. That is, she was first woman qua woman (ie not, as Miranda Barry, in the guise of a man) and she was the first woman to gain British medical qualifications (ie not, as her mentor Elizabeth Blackwell, by qualifying in the US).
To celebrate this auspicious event I was asked, along with Professor Neil McIntyre, to gave a talk at the Royal Society of Medicine. That there is still a great deal of interest in Elizabeth Garrett and her fellow pioneers was evident as we surveyed the packed house.
For those interested in learning more about Elizabeth Garrett’s medical career do visit the ‘Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery at the UNISON Centre – for more details see here.
You might also be interested in reading my book – Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle – for details see here.
In four programmes shown on BBC 2 Dr Amanda Foreman has roamed the globe and travelled through the millenia to uncover stories of women who have made and changed human history from 10,000 BC to the present day.
You can – for a short time – view all four programmes on the BBC iPlayer – click here.
The filming was done in my drawing room – and it was an interesting and enjoyable way to spend a morning – talking about such an agreeable subject with someone so passionate and knowledgeable. Especially so as barely a month previously I had been lying on an operating theatre table. It was good to get back to ‘work’.
For much more about Millicent Fawcett – and all the other Garretts – see Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle.
Caroline Anna de Cherois Crommelin (c 1854-1910) was born in Co Down, Ireland, one of the many children of Samuel de la Cherois Crommelin of Carrowdore Castle.
Although of gentle birth, the family had little money. Political unrest in Ulster forced a move to England and after their father’s death in 1885 Caroline Crommelin and her sisters found it necessary to work to support themselves.
Caroline’s elder sister, May, became a novelist and enjoyed a measure of popular success. In 1903 another sister, Constance, married John Masefield (who was very much her junior).
In 1886 another of the sisters, Florence, married a solicitor, Rhys Goring Thomas, and in the late 1880s with Caroline, who seems to have been the driving force, embarked on a career as a ‘lady decorator’. The pair were able to travel easily along the path blazed for them a decade earlier by Rhoda and Agnes Garrett.
Unlike the Garretts, Caroline and Florence do not appear to have had any specific training, although years later Caroline wrote that an apprenticeship was essential. Rather, they relied on what was assumed to be a natural taste absorbed from their early surroundings. In a later interview Caroline described how their father had given the two of them a room in Carrowdore Castle to do with as they wished and from painting and papering this room they had learned their trade. Whereas Rhoda and Agnes Garrett were happy to deal with drains and internal structures, I doubt that such practicalities fell within the Crommelin sisters’ remit.
It was ‘beautifying’ that was the word most often used to describe Caroline Crommelin’s work. An article by Mary Frances Billington in The Woman’s World, 1890, describes how in 1888 Caroline Crommelin set up a depot at 12 Buckingham Palace Road for the ‘sale of distressed Irish ladies’ work’ and then ‘saw a wider market as a house-decorator, so she wrote ‘Art at Home’ on her door-plate, took into partnership her sister, Mrs Goring Thomas..and boldly set forth to hunt for old oak, rare Chippendale, beautiful Sheraton and Louis Seize furniture’. She attended auctions in all parts of the country and, in case there was any doubt as to the propriety of this involvement with trade, reported that she had no difficulty doing business with dealers, meeting only with civility.
Noting the popularity of old, carved oak, the sisters’ bought old plain oak pieces and then had them carved by their own craftsmen. There was always a stock of such pieces in their showroom.
The ‘Arts at Home Premises’ were opened in Victoria Street, London, in early 1891. I think their house was at 167a Victoria Street – certainly by 1898 this was Caroline Crommelin’s work premises, but it’s possible that in the late 1880s she was working from 143 Victoria Street. Of the ‘Arts at Home’ premises The Sheffield Telegraph (9 March 1891) described how’charmingly arranged rooms, stored with delightful old oak, Sheraton, and Chippendale furniture, quaint brass ornaments, old silver, beautiful tapestries, and old china were crowded all afternoon with the many friends of the clever hostesses.’..The oak room featured a delightful ‘cosy corner’ in dark oak with blue china arranged on the top ledge against the pink walls. May Billington’s article includes a line-drawing of a corner of the ‘Arts at Home’ showroom.
In its 23 November 1895 issue the York Herald commented of Caroline Crommelin that ‘Her house in Victoria St is conspicuous to the passer by for the pretty arrangement of its curtains, and inside the artistic element is even more apparent. Miss Crommelin has been very successful as a house beautifier and her opinion has been much sought after and esteemed by those who like the home to be dainty and harmonious.’
In 1891 the sisters also displayed their wares at the Women’s Handicrafts Exhibition at Westminster Town Hall. The Manchester Times singled them (‘two of our cleverest art decorators’) out for praise. ‘These ladies have shown that… old oak furniture need not be gloomy and dusty and that new furniture may be made to look as good as old, even if the old be Chippendale or Sheraton, Queen Anne or Dutch marqueterie.’
One of Caroline Crommelin’s first ‘beautifying’ commissions was carried out for Lord and Lady Dufferin on the British Embassy in Rome in 1890/1891. The Manchester Guardian (8 Oct 1889) reported that she redecorated the entire embassy. Doubtless this plum commission was not unconnected to the fact that the Dufferin estate in Co Down was a mere 10 miles from Carrowdore Castle; the families were presumably known to each other. Rather more surprising is the claim made in an interview with her in the Women’s Penny Paper, 23 Nov 1889, that she had ‘supplied nearly all the furniture to Lord Cholmondeley’s old place at Houton [sic]. Houghton Hall was let to tenants during the 19th century so, perhaps, there is a kernel of truth buried in this statement – but I don’t think we need go looking at Houghton as it is today for evidence of Caroline Crommelin’s involvement in its decoration.
In interviews Caroline Crommelin also made clear that she ‘undertakes, when required, to furnish a whole or any part of a house, either going with the customer to different firms or selecting for them’ and ‘does not confine herself to decorative work alone, and will put up blinds or attend to the whitewashing of a ceiling with the most professional alacrity’.
Both Caroline and Florence were supporters of the campaign to give the vote to women householders and were keen to see women’s advancements in the professions – particularly as architects.
In 1895 Caroline Crommelin married Robert Barton Shaw, nephew of a former Recorder of Dublin, who in the 1901 census return is described as an estate agent. I wonder if his wife helped in ‘beautifying’ houses he had for sale? In 1901 they were living at 50 Morpeth Mansions, Morpeth Terrace. Caroline in this census return is described as an ’employer’. Florence lived close by -in 1891 at 3 Morpeth Terrace. However hers was to be a short-lived career – she died in 1895, aged only 37, a few months before her sister’s marriage. In the 1889 Penny Paper interview Florence was quoted as saying ‘I believe everybody is happier for working. It carries one into a new life, and one does not have time to think of being ill’. In the light of her early death this has a certain poignancy, suggesting she may have had a chronic illness to overcome.
Caroline carried on the business on her own and in 1903 teamed up with her sister, May, to write a chapter on ‘Furniture and Decoration’ in Some Arts and Crafts (ed Ethel Mckenna), published in The Woman’s Library series by Chapman & Hall. In this they ran through the various periods of furniture and room design but did not bother to disguise their support for one style in particular. ‘Anyone of artistic feeling is sensible of a singular sense of well-being on entering a genuine Queen Anne sitting-room. If analysed, the sensation will be found to arise from an instantaneous inner perception that all is in just proportion. The height and size of the room obey accurate laws. Its ceiling is relieved by geometrical designs. The walls are half-wainscoted; the polished floor shows up the tapestry-like carpet in the centre. The ornaments of furniture and general decoration are neither profuse, grotesque, nor severe. In all, the fatal “too much” is avoided.’
Caroline Crommelin (or, rather, Mrs Barton Shaw) died at 18 Albion Place, Ramsgate on 1 February 1910.