Anne Gardom looks both sides of the green baize door

How did they live? What did they do? What did they really look like? There are two excellent exhibitions on at the moment which illuminate the domestic past, and answer some of these questions.

The National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition called Below Stairs, 400 Years of Servants’ Portraits. These are pictures usually painted by lesser-known or unknown artists, although there are some well-known names – Lawrence, Lely, Hogarth – among them. They were often inspired by the servant’s loyalty, achievement, perhaps remarkable personality or length of service. There was a very close bond between master and servant, frequently lasting for the lifetimes of both. Sometimes entire households are commemorated as in Hogarth’s lovely composite portrait of his six servants.


The earliest portraits come from the feudal background of the great medieval houses with their hundreds of servants and retainers. The Fool of Muncaster is a rare survival from this period: a full-length portrait of a jester-cum-personal-servant, wearing a long brilliantly checked robe. This picture and the ferocious Champion of the Laird of Grant both come from Scotland and give us a tantalising glimpse of a totally vanished world.

With the decline of the vast medieval households, servants became less numerous and varied, and the gap between employer and employee widened. There are many interesting portraits from this period, mainly of servants in wealthy houses. The Nurse to the Angerstein Family, complete with her spectacles, is charmingly portrayed by Lawrence, obviously a valued member of the family. The stables were a very important part of any household and the status of the men who worked there is reflected in the number of portraits of them. They show men confident of their skills and their place in the world. A delightful portrait of the Steward to Lord Plymouth shows a grey-haired man in gaiters and moleskin breeches. Sitting in a relaxed and unaffected pose he looks at ease with the air of a man who knows his worth.

Maid of all work

The place of the maidservant was rather different, and though much more numerous than men there are far fewer pictures of them and portraits are rare. The formidable Bridget Holmes, painted in 1686, is a grand full length portrait in the classic style and shows her shaking a broom at a mischievous page. In 1740 Samuel Richardson published his novel Pamela describing the trials of a virtuous maidservant in the face of what we would now term sexual harassment on the part of her employer. Joseph Highmore’s illustrations show an elegant and charming young woman well in control of the situation – an attractive fiction, one suspects. Other paintings show women servants chatting, sleeping, exhausted, or, as in a picture entitled The Housekeeper’s Room, painted in 1911, presiding as alarming figures of authority and power.

Books were written on how to treat servants and what they should be expected to do, sometimes indeed by the servants themselves. The Experienced English Housekeeper was published in 1769. It was written by Elizabeth Whitaker, housekeeper to Lady Warburton, and was dedicated to her mistress. Cooks were important – Rex Whistler painted The Master Cook where he was posted in the Second World War.


The late 17th century saw a fashion for black or Asian servants, usually slaves. They are shown in paintings (and one remarkable bust) as exotic creatures, gaudily dressed and, quite frequently, with their slave collars still round their necks. Queen Victoria enjoyed her Indian servants and had their portraits painted. The really lovely portraits commissioned by her of her Indian subjects show how fascinating she found them – they hang in Osborne House in the Isle of Wight. John Brown and her piper William Ross are shown in two elegant, somewhat emasculated, watercolours.

The tradition continues – in 1993 Viscount Coke is painted in a large picture with the eight Heads of Departments at Holkham Hall, and there are group photographs of both indoor and outdoor servants of big houses. Such relationships are still important and worth recording,

At the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch, one of London’s most delightful and little-known museums, there is an exhibition entitled Home and Garden. It is the first of two exhibitions designed to show middle-class domestic interiors and gardens. This exhibition covers the period from 1675 to 1830, and the second will be from 1830 to 1914.

The Middling Sort

Many of the portraits and interiors are not grand at all. They show prosperous and cheerful families enjoying their life and surroundings. John Middleton and his family (he manufactured paints and wallpapers) are shown in their quiet plain sunlit sitting room. Mr Crank who was a silk merchant, sits relaxed in his study or counting house, the other chair occupied by a sleeping cat. John Leslie, a successful artist and biographer of Constable, paints his son playing in the garden with the laden washing-line in the background. In a wonderful little drawing Francis Chantrey (later a successful sculptor) shows himself as a young man in lodgings, suffering from mumps. His cat and his two dogs are showing great concern, and the mantelpiece is laden with bottles of physic.

In a series of watercolours Thomas Poole painted the Garden of St James Square, Bristol, where he lived. He was clearly a passionate gardener and every detail of the greenhouse, bedding plants, urns, pot stands, paths and trees is lovingly described. The pictures are eloquent of the gardener’s skill and the owner’s enthusiasm and speak to gardeners of any period.

Bird’s Eye

Other garden pictures are more like maps, painted from a birds-eye view, with the layout of paths and flower beds, walls and summerhouses carefully shown. In a delightful painting of the Chalon family painted in about 1800 by Agasse, the entire family seems to have taken their furniture and their sewing out into the small sunny garden. While the ladies stitch industriously the gentleman exchange neighbourly pleasantries over the fence.

Happy Families

Family groups are popular, with carefully detailed furnishings and clothes. People sit sedately round tea-tables or play musical instruments. The Young Trio by Rippingille, painted in 1829, shows three solemn children making music together. On the other hand, in Hogarth’s The Graham Children they sparkle with fun and spontaneity.

Again many of these paintings are by minor painters and even gifted amateurs, though Hogarth’s sparkling portrait of The Graham Children is an exception, and gives us an intimate and a direct insight into the way many people lived ordinary lives two and three hundred years ago.

Home and Garden is at the Geffrye Museum and runs till 18th January.

It is free.

Below Stairs at the National Portrait Gallery runs till 11th January. Entry £6 Concessions £4.