Posts Tagged emily faithfull
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, 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.
For some time I have been meaning to investigate Charlotte Robinson, ‘Home Art Decorator’ to Queen Victoria, mention of whom I came across years ago while researching the interior design career of Rhoda and Agnes Garrett. Now that I have done so, I’ve discovered, as an added bonus, her family link with one of the WSPU’s more imaginative publicity stunts.
Charlotte Robinson was born c 1859 in Settle in Yorkshire, one of the younger children in the large family of a Yorkshire solicitor. He died in 1870, leaving an estate of c £20,000. A later biographical piece about Charlotte noted that she (as presumably were all the children) was left a share of his property and it was this that gave her the freedom to develop a career.
By 1871 Charlotte had been sent as a boarder to a small school in Bolton but was later moved to the rather more prestigious Queen’s College in London. Education complete she returned home for a time – the 1881 census finds her living with her brother, William, a solicitor, in Keighley. She then spent some time travelling abroad.
For some of that time, certainly in 1883, Charlotte was travelling in America with Emily Faithfull – described on the manifest of the ship on which they travelled to New York as ‘Secretary’. You can read a very interesting article about Emily Faithfull here. It would seem, from remarks recorded by Emily that she had met Charlotte when the latter was still a pupil at Queen’s College.
Emily Faithfull was, of course, a fierce advocate of work for middle-class women so it’s unsurprising that, when interviewed in the 1890s for Manchester Faces and Places, Charlotte described how on her return from her travels ‘she resolved to invest her money in a business which she could control herself instead of returning to the usual round of gaieties, varied by intermittent charitable enterprises.’ The journalist then elaborated – ‘Having always been interested in decorative art, friends who knew her marvellous deftness of touch and infallible sense of colour, strongly advised her to turn these special gifts to account.’
In an interview that appeared in the Women’s Penny Paper, 9 February 1889, Charlotte went into more detail. ‘The idea of house decoration as a profession came to me while travelling through America. I was much struck with the interiors of some of the magnificent houses to which I was invited in some of the principal cities between New York and San Francisco, and on my return to England began to supplement previous artistic study. My first professional business was in furnishing houses, now I decorate them through, as well as working in conjunction with my sister, Mrs McClelland, who presides over the studio from which come the beautiful friezes you have just been admiring.’ So that is how Charlotte Robinson came to become a ‘house decorator.
She was setting up in the house decoration business ten years after the trail had been blazed for women by Agnes and Rhoda Garrett and, like them, she stressed the necessity of undergoing a training. However, although we know that the Garretts were pupils of the architect John Brydon, I’ve been unable to discover where or with whom Charlotte Robinson trained. All that is revealed in the Manchester Faces interview is that she ‘went through the necessary course of study and thoroughly qualified herself for the work.’ As Emily Faithfull put it in a later article Charlotte studied ‘house decoration from hearth tiles to frieze painting’.
According to Emily Faithfull, Charlotte Robinson first went into business in London. This must, I think, have been immediately on their return from America – and was probably by way of dipping a toe in the water. But very soon – probably in late 1884/early 1885 – the two women moved to Manchester and, as Emily wrote, ‘regardless of that bugbear which terrifies most women – she [Charlotte] put up her own name over the door.’
That door gave entrance to 20 South King Street, in the central Manchester shopping district, the premises serving primarily as a shop. It would seem from other remarks that Charlotte’s design work was done at home – 10 Plymouth Grove – the house she shared with Emily Faithfull. By 1886 a part of 20 South King Street had been given over to a ‘Typewriting Office’, run by a Miss Giles. As the Manchester Courier remarked when reporting this ‘Doubtless the typewriter will soon become as popular here as in America’. One can imagine that this was a development of which Emily Faithfull was fully supportive.
It is clear from every description that Charlotte Robinson’s ideas of interior design were the antithesis of those of Rhoda and Agnes Garrett. It is impossible to imagine the latter displaying mirrors such as one to be found in Charlotte Robinson’s establishment – for on it was painted ‘a pool fringed with rushes in which a wild duck and her brood were swimming, while the old mallard was taking wing to enjoy the pleasures of the world beyond – after his kind – leaving to the mother the care of the little fluffy yellow ducks, whose very feathers seemed to move with the passing wind’. (Manchester Courier, 6 February 1885).
Items such as this were produced not in Manchester but in London, in the studio of Charlotte’s sister, Mrs McClelland (33 Warwick Avenue, Paddington). Epsey McClelland was twelve years older than Charlotte – in the 1891 census she is described as a widow, a ‘decorative artist’, living with her daughter at the Warwick Avenue address. In an article on ‘Ladies as Shopkeepers’, reprinted in Pall Mall Gazette, (23 December 1887), Emily Faithfull extolled Charlotte’s taste – ‘Her furniture designs are simple and unique; she has dainty and quaint arrangements for cosy nooks and odd corners, and has good reason to be proud of the work of the artists employed in in the studio over which her clever sister, Mrs McClelland is the presiding genius.’
In 1887 Charlotte Robinson took stands at two exhibitions. In Saltaire in June she showed ‘..beautiful painted screens, brackets, plaques, a corner cabinet richly decorated with painted flowers and an excellently painted frieze.’ (Leeds Mercury 3 June 1887).
Of the Manchester Jubilee Exhibition, June/July 1887, the Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher wrote:- ‘Miss Charlotte Robinson showed a frieze, corner sideboard, overmantel, draught screen, fire screens, Tuckaway tables, and other knickknacks, all, more or less decorated with the light and fanciful painting for which she had made a name. It is in some aspects too “pretty” for our taste, but it is none the less skilful. This lady is happy in the sprightly woodwork forming the foundation of her paintings. The corner sideboard is particularly pleasing.’
We can get a clearer picture of the ‘light and fanciful painting’ from a description given of Charlotte’s stand at the Glasgow Exhibition the following year. ‘Visitors to this stand ought to note the billet-doux writing table, a facsimile of that purchased by the Princess of Wales, and invented and patented by Miss Robinson. Beside this is the ‘Interloper’ chair purchased by the Countess of Rosebery. Both are painted with white French enamel, and decorated with blue tom tits. There are two friezes, specially designed for drawing rooms bearing groups of roses and chrysanthemums and one for a smoking room, with a design of wild ducks in flight.’ (Glasgow Herald 25 May 1888).
Blue tom tits for the ladies and wild ducks for the gentlemen – an aesthetic very different from that of the Garretts, whom Sir Hubert Parry commended – writing in his diary while staying in their house – ‘The quiet and soothing colour of the walls and decoration and the admirable taste of all things acts upon the mind in the most comforting manner. I was quite excised of the vulgar idea that everything ought to be light & gaudy & covered with gilt in London.‘
In late 1888 Charlotte received the accolade of being appointed ‘Home Art Decorator’ to Queen Victoria. Over 20 years earlier Emily Faithfull had been appointed publisher and printer in ordinary to the Queen, her brushes with scandal having apparently done nothing to dent her reputation in the eyes of the royal family. On 9 October 1889 the Leeds Mercury reported that ‘Miss Charlotte Robinson has had the honour of submitting to her Majesty some dessert d’oyleys painted on silk, from sketches taken near Palé as mementoes of Her Majesty’s visit to Wales’ and, as we have seen the Princess of Wales had already bought one of her writing tables’.
By October 1888 business was sufficiently prosperous for Charlotte to open a London showroom – in Mayfair – at 20 Brook Street – and in the same month was appointed as editor of ‘the decorative department’ on the magazine, The Queen, in succession to Mrs Talbot Coke. She was now in a position both to dictate taste and to supply the means of achieving it. She held her position on The Queen for the rest of her life. A small measure of this power was the fact that in an advertisement a Gloucester furnishing store, Messrs Matthews, regularly mentioned that their stock was approved by the leading Art Critics of the Day – such as Charlotte Robinson, Mrs Talbot Coke and Mrs Panton.
The interview given to the journalist from the Women’s Penny Paper took place in the Brook Street showroom, among the ‘cream coloured music racks, dainty billet doux tables, LouisSeize screens etc which provide an artistic public with useful as well as beautiful wedding and birthday gifts’. Charlotte commented that ‘I spend a great deal of time in Manchester, where I have a large business to control, and much is taken up in travelling “back and forth” as we say in the north, between the various houses I have to decorate and furnish in London and the country.Through The Queen I have to advise about houses in every part of the world.’
However for all the reports of how busy she was with her commissions – ‘She can drape a room in less time than it takes most people to think of it’ – there is no information now available to tell us who her clients were or which were the houses she decorated. In the case of the Garretts I was able, from a variety of sources, to piece together a short list of their clients, but I can find no trace at all of Charlotte Robinson’s private clients. There is mention that in in June 1892 she was commissioned to decorate a hotel being erected in Manchester for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, that she did some work for Cunard, and that she was called upon to redecorate the Lord Mayor’s Parlour in Manchester Town Hall. The latter is a superbly Gothic creation and certainly no place for tom tits and wild ducks.
Emily Faithfull died in 1895, leaving all her property to Charlotte. In her will, which had been written in 1893, she wrote that’ I feel sure that any loving members of my family, who may survive me, will appreciate my desire that the few possessions I have should be retained for the exclusive use, and as the absolute property, of my beloved friend Charlotte Robinson, as some little indication of my gratitude for the countless services for which I am indebted to her, as well as for the affectionate tenderness and care which made the last five years of my life the happiest I ever spent.’
After Emily’s death Charlotte Robinson continued to cut a dash in Manchester society. The local newspapers record her attendance at numerous balls and conversaziones – for instance, in July 1899 dressed in white brocaded silk and heliotrope velvet. On these occasions she is often in the company of Julia Dux, who lived close by in Plymouth Grove.
Charlotte Robinson’s career was brought to a premature end, however, by her death at home, in October 1901. She left £3100 – and the executors of her will were her sister, Epsey, and her niece Elspeth McClelland.
The latter, then aged 22, continued along the path that her aunt had, to a degree, forged and, with the changing times, was able to become more fully a professional and practise as an architect. You can read an account of her career here. and a 1905 article (issue 32, p, 114) about her in a Spanish architectural journal here She, like her aunt Charlotte, was clearly a woman of independent thinking and, not unsurprisingly, was swept into the Edwardian suffragette movement, achieving a certain notoriety in 1909 when she was one of the ‘Human Letters’ sent as a publicity stunt to 10 Downing Street. You can see a photograph here of Elspeth posing for the camera – with Daisy Solomon, her fellow ‘Letter’, on the left and Annie Kenney in support on the right. Under her married name – Mrs Elspeth Douglas Spencer – she has an entry in the Suffrage Annual and Woman’s Who’s Who.
Thus, by way of Charlotte Robinson’s ‘home art decoration’ , we can trace a line of endeavour that stretches from Emily Faithfull’s involvement in the 1860s with the Langham Place Group (middle-class women intent on improving work opportunities for their sisters) to a woman architect who, in her short life, managed to design and build several houses – as well as giving birth to three children. It was, apparently, that third birth that in 1920 killed her – putting an end to another interesting career.