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Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servants' Portraits


Review: Sue Burley

MOST of us, at some time in our lives, have hankered for the odd servant to take care of our most tedious chores, while we hand out the orders.

Who has not longed for a gardener to deal with the digging and bedding out, while we potter round the garden with a trug swinging from our arm, daintily dead-heading the roses?

The days of the servant are long gone, but the eclectic National Portrait Gallery has put together an intimate and fascinating exhibition of paintings and ephemera, to illustrate the rise and fall of the domestic servant in Britain. It is entitled Below Stairs.

For centuries, large numbers of people were employed in domestic service, and by the late 18th Century, around an eighth of the population of London worked as servants.

Even in the 1930's, 1.3 million people (most of them women) worked in this way. From the 17th Century, it became popular for employers to commission portraits of domestic staff, either to mark loyalty and long service, or a wish to immortalise an entire household.

One of the earliest works on show is the gung-ho 17th Century portrait, 'The Champion of the Laird of Grant,' painted by Richard Waitt, for Alexander Grant, chief of Clan Grant. Completed in the Scottish Highlands, it is one of the first examples of jesters, pipers and champions, who survived long enough to be recorded in paint.

Mainly male servants, often part of the gentry, had constituted a large part of households, but, by the early 18th Century, staff began to be recruited from the middle and lower classes only, overseen by butlers and housekeepers.

The senior staff at this time would have included gardeners, gamekeepers, servants breeding animals and the grooms of famous racehorses.

With their prestigious jobs, these people were highly prized members of staff. The Stubb's painting, 'The Bay Stallion', is a portrait of one such groom with the stallion, commissioned by the Duke of Ancaster.

Contrary to what might be presumed, many young women in domestic service left their jobs after a short term, on saving enough money for a dowry, and were denounced for ditching their employers for marriage or promotion.

They were often savaged by writers and commentators of the day. Daniel Defoe railed against, 'insolvency, dishonesty, arrogance and unsuitable behaviour of servants, and their unwillingness to remain at the social level which is perceived to be appropriate to them'.

At the beginning of the last century in his play, 'The Admirable Crichton', J.M. Barrie tells of an aristocratic family shipwrecked on a desert island.

The butler, Crichton displays leadership qualities needed for survival and comes to dominate the group. This was considered shocking and subversive at the time, for this suggested that the upper classes were distinguished by accidents of birth rather than any natural superiority.

Some of the servants portrayed served out long lives in service. The painting of 1686, 'Bridget Holmes', by John Riley, shows Bridget, who lived to a great age, wielding a mop with a small pageboy peering cheekily at her from behind a curtain.

A few families commissioned portraits of several members of their households, either together, or as a set of individual portraits (as at Knole and Bramham Park). The York family at Erddig, in Wales, had their servants painted, and then photographed over a period of two centuries.

Cooks were often favourite servants as models, and, as is today, a French cook was highly thought of and seen as a status symbol for an upper class family.

Artists, with their smaller and more informal households took to painting their own servants. There is a beautiful red chalk study entitled, 'A Servant Girl Asleep,' drawn by Charles Beale II in 1680; and one of the most fascinating, 'Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants,' by William Hogarth c. 1750-5, depicting a cross section of his staff, men and women.

Servants' work was often drudgery, enlightened in the bigger houses by the social life below stairs and the possibility of the servants' ball.

The moving painting, 'Idleness', by Patrick Allan-Fraser, uses one of his own maids as the model. Far from being idle, the maid has fallen asleep while trying to absorb a long-winded 'improving' tome given to her by her employer. Poor girl! 'Exhaustion', might be a more apt title today.

By the early 20th Century, the Bloomsbury and Camden Town set revived the use of servants as models, though it was not long before the number of live-in maids declined, lured away by jobs in shops and factories.

The last picture in the exhibition is a comical print by William Heath Robinson, dated 1921, 'How to Dispense with Servants in the Dining Room'.

This depicts a family attempting to cope with a mechanical system of pulleys and ropes while serving themselves with food and despatching plates to the basement kitchen. A variety of contraptions for dispensing sugar cubes and blancmange are wittily devised.

This is a most enjoyable exhibition, but, on reflection, I'd rather relish the paintings, and go home to get on with my own work.

BELOW STAIRS, 400 years of, servants' portraits, National Portrait Gallery (October 16, 2003 - January 11, 2004). Entrance: Adults - £6; Concessions - £4

NB: Our picture shows The Arts Club's Woman Chef, by Francis Edwin Hodge, 1935 (The Arts Club, London).

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