The Countess of Warwick’s Artistic Maids: Part Two

Watercolour of a Working Woman
Anne, 4th Countess of Warwick. Image courtesy of the Warwick Castle collection

Anne was known for her patronage. A particularly heart-wrenching letter for employment from Agnes Harris, begins by listing her artistic credentials. She wrote “I am an artist. I have passed exams. I have taken prizes at S. Kensington. [South Kensington Museum – which ran art classes] And I have my little daughter and myself entirely to keep by my earnings since I lost my husband nearly 5 years ago…She [her daughter] is now convalescent, but of course is not yet well enough for me to send her out early and fetch her home late as I am obliged to do in the ordinary course, which I am at the studios, therefore I fear it will be some weeks yet till I can return to my work.” Writing from 18 Hart Street of Bloomsbury Square, next to the offices of Miss Stride’s Homes for Destitute Girls and Fallen Women, Agnes’s situation must have been a desperate one. Unfortunately, no surviving evidence remains as to show whether the countess did employ Agnes.

Collaboration with her servants

Surviving letters also demonstrate how Anne collaborated with her servants in producing art. This creative relationship might be an amusing mirror perhaps to the master and assistant relationship that existed in the studios of great artists. This evidence appears in a letter concerning a former employee of Anne, a Mrs T J Wood, who later found herself in “a state verging of destitution” with her husband in Cirencester. Unable to pay their bills, a plea was made to Lady Warwick as Mrs Wood had formerly assisted her in “painting a screen for the Duchess of Albany on her marriage that latterly she has received a sovereign from her ladyship & an order to paint a fan for her which she has yet been able to do…” Anne is recorded to have painted screens for Prince Leopold and his wife Princess Helen Frederica, the Duke and Duchess of Albany, as her son Lord Brooke had been the Duke’s friend and equerry for some time. Leopold even wrote to Anne explaining that he had housed her painted screen gift in his private sitting room at Buckingham Palace. It is surprising that due to the efforts of this countess, the artistic efforts of a maid servant could make it even into the private homes of the Royal Family.

Serving as models

Furthermore, surviving sketches and paintings show that Anne’s servants also served as models. A brilliant loose and spontaneous unfinished head study in oils survives in the Warwick Castle collection, albeit not on display to visitors. Maid servants may well have been available and willing models during quieter times of the day, when Anne was taken to painting in her Warwick or London homes. Another unfinished watercolour of a plainly dressed young woman in wearing a white apron is suggestive of a working woman. The full-length format is reminiscent of aristocratic portraits by Old Masters. A working woman, perhaps an old cook of the castle, is also the subject of one of two surviving oil paintings of Anne’s. An old woman peeling a carrot, a painting which hangs out of sight in a high corridor of Warwick Castle. Harking back to painting of the Dutch Golden Age, we are reminded of notions that there is dignity in hard work.

Such rare and important evidence demonstrates the interconnectedness of the lives and activities of both employer and employee. These people were much more than names on a register or rota, the sorts of documents we are more likely to find in archives. The extraordinary Warwick Castle collection, and the papers of the 4th Countess of Warwick, enables us to put experiences to the names of the many servants and maids who walked through the castle’s gates, allowing for a richer understanding of these people, and how Warwick Castle – and its owners – affected their lives.

More from Warwick