What qualities do you think a Victorian Countess would look for in a maid servant? If one watches television shows such as Downton Abbey, then you might be convinced that the aristocratic women relied on their female staff primarily for emotional and psychological support, alongside daily chores such as lacing bodices and coiffing hair…
I have recently been thinking, is it possible to separate the lives and experiences of the ‘downstairs’ staff from the interests and characters of their masters?
Would abilities in ‘repousse leatherwork’ be one of the skills you’d expect a Victorian Countess to look for in a maid servant? Surviving evidence complicates our expectations of what sorts of things servants at the castle were employed for. This is particularly the case with Anne Greville (1829-1903), née Charteris, 4th Countess of Warwick. As her brother put it, Anne was “an artist to her finger ends”, whose life was dedicated to art and beauty alongside the busy demands of family life. She painted in oils and watercolours, and designed ceramics; she practised leatherwork, book binding, photography and was a devotee to interior design.
Valuing artistic skills
Anne valued artistic skills in her maid servants. After all, she lived in an age where art was becoming a popular refuge for young women seeking a professional career to make a living. This was a cause she actively supported, especially in her patronage and protection of the young women artists of the Leamington Spa School of Art and its controversial headmistress Miss Emilie Browne. She opened up her castle to these young creative girls. The countess’s charitable bazaars, in which art was often the focus, enabled them to exhibit their art works to the public alongside her own within her ancient home.
Surprising letters show that Anne had sought out art connoisseurs such as Mrs Alfred Morrison and Lady Sibyl Eden, patroness to the likes of John Singer Sargent and Whistler, for recommendations of unmarried women who might come to work for her. An 1887 letter from the Art Work Department of the Working Ladies Guild in London explains that Lady Warwick had sought out professional advice to find the right staff. She was recommended a ‘Miss Fanshawe’ who “does not paint but she does repousse leather work, writes a good hand & capable.” Other lists in Anne’s hand of unmarried women found in parts of South London, often with little accompanying notes of their artistic skills such as ‘lacemaker’, is evidence of the discernment she showed.