Monday, 29 August 2011

You Rang, M’Lord?

Both of my grandmothers were in service. Grandma Stonell did not last long after sneaking a bath when the mistress of the house went out and stinking the place out with hyacinth bath salts. Let’s just say service wasn’t for her. Grandma Daisy was in service at the time of the First World War and actually made the move from a small village in rural Wiltshire up to London, where she served with a family until she married in 1929. Daisy’s experiences in service must have been the very end of what was a very common occupation for Victorian and Edwardian girls. While researching for Stunner I was fairly horrified by Victorian service and how hard the life was. I wondered how many works of art showed life below stairs…

At the Employment Agency of the Domestic Service Hiring Office (1881) Fritz Paulsen
 Well, first of all you had to get below stairs. In this marvellous painting, M’Lady is picking a new maid from the bevy of hopefuls. Hmmm, well I’d go with the lass on the far left as she looks quiet, but with meaty enough forearms to cope with anything. The two next to her look far too chatty, they’d never get any work done and as for the one showing her ankles…that would never do. I’m slightly puzzled by the cherubic boy sitting by vegetable basket, but to be honest, you can never start your servants off too early.

Going into Service Richard Redgrave
 Far less fun, this image shows a girl being handed over to her new employer, an old woman. The mother acts as a link between the old widow and her Jane Eyre-esque daughter, who bows meekly against her mother. Although she seems be giving due deference to her new boss, she also seems to cower slightly to her mother’s side. Possibly the painter wanted to question if the girl is too young to go into service, maybe he just wanted to show a girl’s first steps into a life of servitude. Either way, I find the painting somewhat disquieting; maybe it’s the distance the young man is keeping. He is presumably the father of the young girl, but the deal seems to be between the mother and the new employer, with the father almost superfluous, which is an odd thing to say in such a patriarchal society. However in both of these pictures, the women seem to be sorting out business. Maybe it’s because the employment of female members of staff is the jurisdiction of Lady of the House, or perhaps the domestic affairs are definitely the concern of a woman. So are all paintings regarding maids purely female affairs? Well…

Did you ring, Sir? (1854) W P Frith

Sherry, Sir? (1853) W P Frith
Oh, hello… I’m relieved the first one isn’t called ‘Do you want me, Sir?’ because it is all rather open to interpretation. How nice to have a shiny ringletted girl bringing you sherry at the end of a hard day, but why exactly you would want a picture of that I’m not sure. Isn’t it interesting that her employer is not within the frame, but rather the subject looks directly at the audience. We are her master, which presumes that the intended purchaser of these paintings is a man. As previously covered, maids were normally the domain of the mistress of the house, but paintings of maids seem to be aimed at a male audience.

The Course of True Love Never Runs Smooth Paul Seignac
On the whole, maids and their employers don’t seem to crop up in paintings together. The above image is one of the exceptions to be rule. A young woman attempts to avoid her suitor for reasons unexplained, but stuck in the middle of their relationship issue is a girl sweeping the carpet with the longest handled broom I have ever seen. I think she has wandered in from another picture, as she seems oddly in the way of this one. Mind you, she may be a metaphor for the young woman’s state of mind as she sweeps the young man out of her life. With a really long broom. No, not a clue, no wonder servants and employers don’t tend to be mixed in pictures.

Maids of all Work (1864-65) John Finnie
Chatterboxes (1912) Thomas Kennington
Far more common are pictures of serving girls pausing in their daily chores and chatting, sharing stories. There appears to be a modicum of judgement passed on these women, the title ‘Chatterboxes’ is a little patronising and the 'maids of all work' don't seem to be doing any work. I particularly like the image of the two women sat, smiling and sharing a joke while one shells peas. See, being in service may be hard, but every day is a pastel-coloured smile-fest, or so the above canvases lead me to believe….

After the Party Frederick Hardy
Home Dreams (1869) Charles West
 I was surprised there were not more pictures of how hard service was, but I don’t think that the audience would like a daily reminder of the iniquity that existed under their own roof. There is a difference between the above pictures of exhausted workers and the desperation inherant in the paintings of slopworkers and seamstresses. Few would disagree that service was long hours and hard work, but the maids that doze off after a particularly long day are subject of affectionate humour, safe in the knowledge that she will have a roof over her head and a meal tomorrow. I thought the girl who dreamt of home was a seamstress to start with, as her pose is so reminiscent of the paintings mostly entitled ‘Oh, for one hour more, or I shall have to go on the game!’ or the such-like, but slopworkers worked from home, so I think she is a maid, darning late into the night, dreaming of her home after she dozes off. She probably has to be up in half an hour to start lighting fires in the family’s bedrooms.

So this was their life, until they married or until they died, and a hard life it seems to have been. Despite the number of pictures of nubile young maids, there didn’t seem to be many images of older female servants. Oh, except this one….

The Elderly Servant (1884) Leon Frederic
…and she’s only 23. Sherry, Sir?


  1. Another great post. I suspect the lack of paintings (and photos) was because they were so common and just part of the wallpaper. Sad ones wouldn't have appealed to middle-class patrons, though oddly sad Governesses seem to have been accepted. When other work opened up in 1914, even hard factory work was preferable which says a lot about how miserable this work was.

  2. Wow! I am seriously impressed by both your vivid writing and collection of images! Thank you

  3. Thank you for the comments, I only hope people have as much fun reading as I have fun writing! :)


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