The Circus

The Circus

Pp 324-328

18th C

As a wife and mother Margaret Gainsborough was responsible for running this large house of five floors, looking after a husband whose health was always precarious, and two girls who were quite a handful and, as they became older, the cause of considerable concern to her. In addition to her own daughters Margaret was responsible for the various young Gainsborough nephews and nieces and the students invited to join the household throughout her marriage. Add to these individuals living under her roof was the procession of lodgers who were another constant in the Gainsbor0ough's married lives, not to mention their personal friends (and their servants) who stayed as non-paying guests, often for weeks on end. And then there were the female indoor servants and later Gainsborough's manservant, all of whom had to be fed and housed, not to mention the endless laundry and general cooking and cleaning required to keep the household running.

As the wife of a celebrated artist Margaret might not have had endless free time to indulge in the niceties of social life on a personl level, however much she might have enjoyed it and, indeed, seemed to expect it as her right, given her family connections.

She had, of course. to welcome many famous individuals to her home as titled men and women of the highest degree trooped through her front door and climbed the stairs to have their portaits painted for posterity in these rooms on the first floor of No. 17 The Circus.

21st C

Speaking of which, this is odd: a team of two cleaners from the domestic cleaning service, Molly Maid, are here regularly. Gainsborough's ghost (mentioned earlier) has taken a liking to them. The awful fishy smell that indicates his presence regularly appears when they arrive, and only in the room which he used as his studio and immediately outside it on the landing. This unpleasant smell arrives suddenly, as soon as they come in the door around 10.30 am, and has gone immediaitely after they leave the house several hours later, not on every visit, but more often than not. Neither of the two women welcome his ghostly presence. Indeed, they are quite nervous about entering that room and the bathroom attached to it.

We, all three of us in the house, are aware of the strong fishy odour that comes and goes when they are here. As my friend the former director of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery says, the smell is reminiscent of the fish or bone based glue used by 18th C artists to treat their canvases before use.

But now, back to Mrs Gainsborough in the 18th C. You have only to watch a TV series recreating life at that time to get some idea of the labour-intensive methods used in kitchen and laundry to keep a household running smoothly. Margaret would personally have had to undertake much of the cooking in the kitchen in the basement, although major joints of meat were sent out to be cooked in the nearby baker's oven in Bennett Street. She would have had to order the food and often go out to market to select it. Soap and candles were extremely expensive and were often home-made to save money - a tedious procedure. Laundry matters as we have seen earlier, were a major headache to any house-keeper, requiring a constant battle to stay on top of the ever growing mountain of washing and, perhaps worse, the drying process involving the constant hanging about (especially in Georgian town houses with restricted access to outdoor space) of personal underwear, voluminous petticoats and shifts, men's shirts and other garments, let alone endless sheets and pillow cases, table cloths and napkins, towels, not to mention the time-consuming task of ironing all the frills and lace trimmings on personal attire. All this had to be achieved using a series of hot flat irons heated by the kitchen fire. The hired washing woman would undertake the laborious washing process and much of the ironing of bed linen but the indoor maids would be required to help with smaller and more personal items. Margaret would have had to organize and supervise the whole procedure and her daughters would have been required to help their mother in some of these tasks, spending more time doing so as they grew older.

As indicated earlier, a household running on the Gainsborough family's income would expect to employ at least two full-time, living-in female indoor servants and a washerwoman once or twice a week, with extra help hired as required for entertaining. By the time the family moved to London Gainsborough had taken on a full-time manservant - an expensive move.

Domestic servants were vital but often considered more trouble than they were worth. They caused upheaval in the house when they proved to be lazy or dishonest and had to be dismissed and then replaced. Coping with the servant problem in the 18th C was clearly recognized by all employers as one of the worst problems a Georgian woman faced in running her household.

Pp 319-323

18th C

So, the Gainsborough girls returned from their boarding school in London in this lcimate of change, described earlier. They were now in their late teens, at an age which placed them directly into the highly competitive marriage market. Their mother was determined to see them marry well but their father was more realistic, aware that their prospects of capturing wealthy husbands was less than promising. As well, over the next year or two, he realised that Mary was beginning to exhibit some worrying patterns of behaviour.

Gainsborough's last double portrait of his daughters was painted when the family lived here at No. 17 The Circus, between 1770 and 1774. Mary and Margaret were by then in their early twenties, still unmarried and with no evidence of becoming engaged. They are pictured standing close together, Margaret on the left, Mary's arm around her younger sister's shoulders, a faithful dog by their side. They are dressed in elegant gowns and depicted in a romantic setting, looking for all the world like ladies of leisure, which they were not: Mary was by then a talented draughtsman and Margaret an accomplished musician. Their father described them ironically as "these fine ladies" and they were keen to be seen a such, rather than to be known as women required to seek work for a living.

The hard truth was, of course, that as daughters of a working artist they were not regarded by Georgian society as "ladies" and they had no dowries worth speaking of. Gainsborough had serious doubts about his wife's ambitious desires to see them married off to wealthy husbands. Bath was the centre of the social world where suitors and scoundrels alike combed the Assembly Rooms for attractive and, most importantly, wealthy, well-born young brides. The Gainsborough girls had little chance to win this race. They were never part of the first rank in Bath society and when the family moved to London in 1774, their social aspirations were further restricted. While Gainsborough himself moved on to become Court Painter, highly regarded by the King and Queen, his wife and daughters did not rise with him and appear to have played no part in fashionable society of the day.

Sadly, with hindsight, we know that at this point in their young lives, Mary and Margaret faced a disappointing future. It was at this time, as discussed earlier, that Johann Christian Fischer made his appearance, an attractive cocky man who was fully aware of his ability to attract women. A leading oboist of the day he was a member of the Queen's Band at the Palace. Gainsborough met him in the mid 1770's after the family had moved to London, and he painted a fine portrait of the musician. While he himself got on well with Fischer, Gainsborough never trusted him as far as his daughters were concerned. But both girls were attracted to the musician. Now in their mid twenties, considered old as potential brides, Gainsborough was worried. He wrote to his sister that he tried desperately to keep Fischer away from Mary and Margaret. He kept a close eye on Margaret, the younger daughter he assumed Fischer was attracted to, but while doing so "the other sly boots" turned out to be the subject of Fischer's pursuit. Mary virtually eloped with Fischer, marrying him on 21 February 1780. She managed to persuade her mother and father to attend the wedding as witnesses, but Gaisnborough's fear that this self-centered man would never bring his daughter happiness proved correct: the marriage lasted no more than six months. Mary returned home to live with her parents and from this time her fragile mental state became increasingly obvious, finally collapsing into madness. Margaret, too, displayed a determined wilfulness which caused her parents some concern, but she was never as unstable as Mary.

Pp 313-318

In the 21st C the leisure business has flourished beyond all expectations. Paying to keep fit and entertained is a mushrooming industry today, one which was foreshadowed by a similar movement in the 18th C when healthy exercise like walking and riding (and, it must be admitted, taking a daily jaunt in a carriage) in order to keep fit was just as important to the fashionista as was the pursuit of entertainment in the form of shopping, gambling and dancing at balls in the Assembly Rooms.

For all these pleasures there was a price to pay in entry fees and similar charges and the Georgian leisure industry developed into a highly important spect of the economy of spa towns like Bath, where the fashionable who did not work for a living had endless hours to fritter away throughout the season.

Contrary to a widely held belief, women in the 18th C were fond of walking and covered what would now be considered impressive distances, tripping along in their cumbersome full-length petticoats and voluminous skirts and dainty footwear. On a country walk six or seven miles was nothing to boast about. Europeans, horrified by the large feet of the average English gentle-woman, blamed this defect on their bizarre love of walking. Then, as now, Bath's flagstoned and cobbled pavements caused many to trip and fall, and caused a lady's feet to burn through her dainty shoes. Some of the Bath belles overcame this problem by having thick cork soles applied to their street shoes.

Shopping in town was one of their greatest pleasures and the most popular time to do so in Bath was in the afternoon although shops often indulged their customers by remaining open until 10 p.m.

Domestic finance was controlled by the man of the house and while women were responsible for day to day marketing, they had to obtain permission before spending on expensive items, while being required to keep a detailed account of all household expenditure, however small the sum involved.

Occasionally a family man living in the depths of the country and visiting London or Bath might be asked to buy personal items for his wife or daughters - a lace collar, perhaps, or some ribbon for trimming a bonnet, but the result was often woefully disappointing. Women much preferred to shop for themselves and for each other.

Sometimes a milliner like Gainsborough's sister was summoned to a visitor's lodgings bringing with her a selection of goods for her customers to try on and choose from at leisure.

The normal life of a woman of means in Bath required living through an endless round of activity from morning until late at night. She might leave the house for an early morning dip in the Roman Baths, return to change, then be off again to breakfast with friends, remaining there until midday, then on to make another visit. Home to change before dining with friends at about 4 p.m., then on to an evening concet in a private house which might begin at 9 p.m. On to the Assembly Rooms to dance or play cards, finally falling into bed, but never before midnight, more often in the early hours of the morning. And this punishing regime applied to young ladies, to their parents, and to their parents, if they had the energy to stay the course.

Women made their formal brief calls in the morning and and again in the late afternoon, following family dinner at home. Invitations to a private home to take tea an hour or two after the hosts had dined were usual, when hosts and earlier guests left the dining room to join those newly arrived. There was no question of being insulted by receiving an invitation of this kind. Indeed, so active was Bath's social life that such an invitation was often more than welcome.

PP 309-312

18th C

In Bath the Spring Gardens pleasure grounds were laid out on the opposite side of the River Avon, reached by ferry from South Parade. Taking breakfast there was a popular outing.

One day the Bishop of Peterborough, John Hinchcliffe, who was in town taking the waters, invited the writer Fanny Burney and her friends the Thrales to accompany him by ferry across the river. They did so, walking through meadows tudded with wildflowers to drink tea at the Spring Gardens. Then, as a treat, the Bishop urged them to walk on to Mr Ferry's house where a surprise awaited them. A senior alderman of the City, Mr Ferry's dwelling was, rather unexpectedly, open to the public for a fee and, it transpired, contained some amusing contents. Having inspected the garden the party moved indoors where Mr Ferry himself begged them to be seated. A curtain was drawn back to reveal through a glass a three-dimensional marine view of ships, boats and water. Ferry's house maid, operating the attraction, then caused a trapdoor to open in the floor: a covered table rose magically into view. A second later a life-sized model of an eagle swooped down from the ceiling and with his formidable talons extended, whipped off an ornamental cloth to reveal a feast of cakes, sweets and jellies laid out on the table, ready for the visitors' enjoyment.

This extraordinary house of magic was called Bathwick Villa but its owner, Alderman Ferry, appears to have indulged too far in sleight of hand activities. He was dismissed in 1780 for failing to balance the books of the City's treasury.

Exhibitions and shows of all kinds were hugely popular with the Georgians and they were expensive treats. One amazing exhibition was the talk of London in March 1772, when the Gainsboroughs were living here in The Circus but occasionally visiting London. Cox's Museum in Spring Gardens, Charing Cross, won the approval of Dr Samuel Johnson and on his friend's recommendation James Boswell went to see it for himself. He was deeply impressed by the size of the mechanically driven exhibits, twenty-two of them, some standing sixteen feet tall and all emblazoned with sparkling gems.

One represented an elephant, supporting on a pedestal a carriage drawn by four golden horses, all prancing along in unison. Another carriage was pulled along by white doves flying around a temple made of mother-of-pearl. All kinds of birds and flowes made of gold and silver, amber and lapis lazuli sparkled and moved, the cleverly concealed mechanisms whirred, captivating all who saw them.

This expensive exhibition would have been seen only by the reasonably wealthy. Boswell's entry fee of half a guinea was exactly equal to half his weekly rent for his first floor rooms in central London. Half a guinea was the accepted entry fee for both the Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea and the Pantheon in Oxford Street. Both were popular places of public amusement, boasting huge new rotundas, the one in Chelsea measuring 150 feet in diameter which impressed Boswell so much he made a note of its size in his diary on 31st March 1772.

To add to the expense of entry fees to these public pleasure palaces, everyone was scrutinized so closely that both male and female visitors paid every attention to the detail of their appearances, aware that as they paraded among the exhibits everything they wore would be commented upon, every feather and every gold-braided detail stored away for gossip around the gambling tables the following day.

In Bath women of all ages were to be seen at the theatre. Fanny Burney and her friend Mrs Thrale were frequently at a performance, often deciding to go on the spur of the moment, sending out for sedan chairs to take them there and back. The Georgians, both men and women, loved too the excitement of attending the often colourful and dramatic trials held in the local law courts. The trial of Clive of India described elsewhere was the dramatic hit of the year.

Pp 305-308

18th C

When Assembly rooms and pleasure gardens were introduced to cities and spa towns young Georgian gentle-women in their late teens were permitted to walk in town and stroll through public parks and gardens with a friend, or accompanied by a servant during the day. They were allowed to travel in a similar fashion in hackney coaches without upsetting mama unduly.

There were, of course, various means by which girls like the Gainsborough daughters on their return from boarding school in London were kept aloof from the rougher elements of society in public places like the pleasure gardens and horse racing. The cost of ticketed-entry-only events required for specific attractions - charity benefis for example - held in the pleasure gardens in Bath virtually excluded the lower classes on these occasions, while maintaining the preferred status of those attending. After dark, of course, young women were closely chaperoned by family members. Nevertheless there were occasions which permitted genteel young ladies glimpses of the ways of another world which set their imaginations working. They were by no means coy in commenting (at least in their correspondence with one another) on matters of a decidedly sexual nature.

The popular pleasure gardens in London and Bath offered entertainment of all kinds: classical temples, elabrately lit set pieces employing thousands of candles and torches, magicians and clowns, acrobats, orchestras and bands playing for dancing, maybe a concert followed by supper served in decorated arbours set among the trees, all held late at night. In London when the Gainsborough family moved there in 1774 no-one of any importance arrived at the fashionable Vauxhall Gardens on the south bank until midnight.

The Vauxhall Gardens were the leading pleasure gardens in the country. Highly popular for the three summer months these Gardens attracted frequent return visits by most of the nobility: King George III and his large family were often to be seen there. As a consequence, it was important for anyone with aspirations to be seen there too. All were entertained with the sweet song of "numbers of nightingales," their music competing with the best orchestras in England. Fine pavilions designed by leading architects and decorated by well-known artists were furnished with cosy dining alcoves serving a wide variety of food and drink. There were shady groves to be explored, arbours decorated with gigantic sculptured figures, delightful walks among groves of trees illuminated by more than a thousand lamps whch were lit mechanically, as if by magic, offering a line of living flame at a given hour.

Benjamin Franklin's son William was swept away by his first visit in 1752, writing to a friend in America that he could dwell for hours on the "enchanting scenes at Vauxhall" which were "unbelievably beautiful," a more or less universal reaction from the thousands of visitors who attended: no less than six thousand people paid a hefty entry fee to be part of a special celebratory event held on the night of 19th May 1786. Was the Gaisnborough family among them?

Pp 303-304

21st C

Margaret Gainsborough's husband hits the headlines this week. An article by Charles Glover in The Sunday Times on February 12, 2012, reports the use of one of Thomas Gainsborough's early landscapes as a weapon in the battle to protect the gentle rolling countryside he depicted around 1748.

Protesters on the east coast are angered by the threat of an army of huge new pylons marching across this area of natural beauty unchanged since Gainsborough recorded the scene two hundred and sixty years ago.

They criticize the insensitivity of the National Grid as it now plans to deliver a quarter of the country's electricity supply from new wind farms to be placed off the coast in the North Sea, using these gigantic metal structures, 196 feet high, striding across the landscape to do so. The protesters urge the authority to think again, and use underground cables to save Gainsborough's beautiful, unspoiled landscape. The painting concerned is "Wooded Landscape with Herdsman Seated" and it is housed in Gainsborough's House Museum in Sudbury.

Let's hope that the new energy secretary, Ed Davey, will be moved to cancel plans for the march of the giants and settle for the underground alternative.


21st C

I have misled you. Today I discovered in an article by Andrew Swift published in THE BATH MAGAZINE this week (Feb 2012, pp 20-21) that the fashionable White Hart Inn always used by Dr Sibbald in the 18th C when visiting his daughter Susan in Bath was not the current gastropub of the same name existing today in Widcombe as I suggested, but a building then standing opposite the Pump Room.

As Andrew Swift points out the owner of the popular White Hart in the 1830's was a certain Moses Pickwick, a foundling discovered in a basket left in a stable at an inn in the village of Pickwick near Bath - hence the name that tickled the imagination of Charles Dickens, which he then made famous.

Andrew Swift says Dickens made no secret of his dislike of Bath. He described it as "a mouldy old roosting place built by a cemetery full of old people"; "a dreary city" peopled with "appalling old gentlemen with thin legs and nankeen trousers!"

18th C

Let's return now to the time when Mary and Margaret Gainsborough left boarding school in London and returned to live at home with their parents in this house in Bath. Historian Amanda Foreman claims that they did so in a period that was one of the most sexually integrated times in British history. Another writer, Amanda Vickery, agrees, believing that young Georgian women like the Gainsborough girls enjoyed considerably more freedom than their grandmothers were permitted.

The accepted "proper" role played by women was the subject of considerable debate, often the cause of serious family disagreements. Georgiana, the beautiful and spirited Duchess of Devonshire, was a prime example, attracting widespread criticism when she became heavily involved in politics in the mid 18th C, offering kisses in exchange for votes. Recent studies indicate that women of the aristocracy and those in society generally were much more active politically and socially than the literature of the day indicated. Their participation attracted angry criticism from contemporaries who demanded that women should return to their rightful place: the home.

As early as 1732 the press reported that women were seeking to supplant men by wearing breeches and riding astride. Some women were actually seen to be shaking hands! And some had the affrontery to order their men to get them coffee, instead of serving the males themselves. What was worse, claimed the Gentleman's Magazine in July 1732, misdirected females actively took the initiative in affairs of the heart.

And touching on romance, a surprising statistic was revealed recently by author Faramerz Dabhoiwala in his book THE ORIGINS OF SEX (Allen lane, 2012). He discovered that in the year 1800 no less than forty percent of women were pregnant on their wedding day. This to me amazing fact indicates that many chaperones of those young ladies were less than successful in their duties.

One of the consequences of increasing female poltical activity was the interest in the subject shown by newspapers. When the Gainsboroughs moved to live in London in 1774 there were nine daily newspapers in the capital and hundreds of weeklies in the provinces, all eager to reprint London's gossip columns highlighting activties of celebrities of the day.

The result of this widespread publicity was that for the first time national figure emerged and became widely known as celebrities whose lives were followed with as much attention in the 18th C as they are on Facebook and Twitter today. People attracting such interest were those whom readers could recognise and identify with, forming then, as today, some kind of personal connection.

Nevertheless, for all the modern attitudes of women like the Duchess of Devonshire, people on the level of Margaret Gainsborough had few legal rights. Upon marriage any monies belonging to a wife in the 18th C automatically became the property of her husband. In the case of the painter, Margaret's handsome annual income of £200 (equivalent in 2002 to £20,000) from her father's ducal estate was paid directly into Gainsborough's bank account and administered entirely by him.

Had he chosen to beat Margaret for any misdemeanor he was entitled to do so, provided there was a good cause and provided that he used a stick no thicker than his thumb. In law Gainsborough and his contemporaries could treat their wives as they pleased but for two conditions: they were not permitted to imprison or physically torture their spouses.

The preacher John Wesley reported that wife-beating was a frequent occurrence in Newcastle in 1743 and letters and diaries of the time reveal that wife-beating, especially when husbands were under the influence of liquor (a common state) was a frequent practice not by any means limited to the lower classes.

Illegitimate children were often taken care of by the family of either the mother or father of the child. Aristocrats like the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire set the example by taking into their home the Duke's illegitimate child by his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, who often lived with the Devonshires and became an intimate friend of Georgiana, the Duchess. After Georgiana's death Elizabeth married the Duke and stepped neatly into her shoes as the new Duchess. However, the Duke refused Georgiana the same courtesy when she gave birth to a daughter by another man. That infant was fostered out, far off in the country. Georgiana kept in touch, but only occasionally was she given her husband's permission to visit her child.

This broadminded attitude towards children born out of wedlock was widespread and not limited to the upper classes. Thomas Turner, a village shopkeeper, agreed to take the eight year old illegitimate son of his half-sister into his home in 1757.

This respectable girl either chose not to marry the father of her child or did not have the opportunity to do so. Initially her father, Turner senior, undertook to bring up the boy, and following his death, Turner the shopkeeper felt obliged to take him into his household in return for the sum of £5 per year, left for this purpose in Turner senior's will, to board and clothe the lad until he was fourteen. This was an example of the family publicly taking a responsible attitude towards the problem of the illegitimate child.

On the other hand James Boswell discreetly managed the affairs of his illegitimate infants Charles and Sally, born in his batchelor days, with the help of a medical friend so that they appear not to have impinged on his marriage. It appears that his wife might never have known of the existence of these children.

Woman like Mrs Boswell were often extremely hostile to the activities of adulterous female wives (men in a similar situation were not castigated in the same way) and they felt the same about pregnant servant girls.

Unmarried women and older women faced difficult choices and it appears lived mostly unhappy lives. The writer Fanny Burney observed through one of her male characters in a novel that there seemed to be no reason for a single woman to live after the age of thirty because she was only in other people's way, often further resented because she was a financial burden on some man: father, brother, uncle or son - or worse, her male in-laws.

Nevertheless, some single women fought back: they were well-known for their activities in the money market as rentiers, investors and money lenders, which might indicate that wealthy married women found trade distasteful and beneath them, leaving such matters to their husbands.