The Circus

The Circus


18th C

Margaret Gainsborough spent most of her life indoors. House management was time-consuming, tiring and tiresome. In winter especially, lighting and heating the house was a major issue. The nights were long and cold. Both candles and coal were worryingly expensive and to conserve both a Georgian family occupied one family room and went to bed early when not entertaining. Needlework as a means of passing long hours indoors was not to be dismissed lightly. James Boswell met the handsome Mrs Knowles in 1772. She had been an acknowledged beauty who made the mistake of marrying a humble but ambitious apothecary. Queen Charlotte was offered Mrs Knowles' fine needlework portrait of the King. Impressed, she made Mrs Knowles an amazingly generous present of £800, declaring her work to be invaluable. On seeing his wife attracting such interest at court, Apothecary Knowles immediately hurried up to Edinburgh to study for a medical degree, intent on using every opportunity his clever wife's needle offered him.

Mindful of the low level of lighting available - candles and oil lamps - we might picture the Gainsboroughs at home in this house one winter's night, settling down in the family parlour on the ground floor, Gainsborough in his wing chair by the open fire reading his newspaper, Margaret making a dent in the endless repairing of household linen or perhaps taking a moment to pick up one of her favourite journals: "Tatler" and "Spectator" were much in vogue at this time. Next to her mother Mary might be reading a book borrowed from the highly popular circulating library, her younger sister perhaps embroidering a purse for her father's birthday, whil Gainsborough's niece kneels on the rug before the fire playing with building blocks, all straining their eyes to read, work or play by the light of a candle or two; only if guests were present would a few more candles be in evidence.

As we have seen, the smooth running of the home and all domestic affairs were regarded as the sole responsiblity of the mistress of the house. In a family of the same status as the Gainsboroughs, household management could be arduous indeed, supervision of servants being one of the worst of the never-ending tasks to be performed. Widowers who were forced to take control frequently remarried rather too fast for approval for this sole reason, or persuaded an unfortunate single female relative to move in and undertake the unpaid role of housekeeper to spare themselves the endless hassle. Men were notoriously ill-equipped to control the behaviour of servants of either sex and their constant tendency to deceive their masters.

On those rare occasions when a husband sought the services of the law in dealing with the odd unfaithful wife and her lover, he often claimed additional financial compensation for the loss of his housekeeper, never mind his bedmate.

Largely confined to domestic territory in an era before women took an active part in politics or administration of the country, Margaret's contemporaries valued their homes and personal possessions in an emotional rather than a financial sense. And with age, women faced a painful loss of status. Beau Nash was less than tactful when he decreed that older ladies and children were to be relegated to obscure back row seats at any Ball they might attend in Bath as being "past or not come to perfection."


18th C

At the time Margaret arrived to take charge of No. 17 The Circus in 1766 when the walls smelled of new paint and the wooden shutters had just been fitted at the windows, she was thirty-eight years old. When Gainsborough decided to uproot the family and take them all to live in London for the rest of his life his wife was forty-six, often a difficult time for a woman facing the menopause and the fluctuations of emotional and physical change frequently experienced. Having established a life for herself in Bath over the past fifteen years it appears that Margaret might not have welcomed the move as enthusiastically as her husband.

Margaret was unusual in that she bore only three children (losing one in infancy) while the average Georgian mother produced six or seven children who survived to adulthood. The high mortality rate affecting women in childbirth meant that it was not unusual for a young expectant mother to leave a letter addressed to the newborn child in case of her death.

Childbirth was anticipated with undisguised fear by women facing their first experience, and with resigned acceptance by the experienced mother. They had no pain relief to help them through the ordeal and prior to the birth they were socially isolated for the final three months when they were confined to the home.

In one horrifying incident described by Amanda Vickery an English woman was in labour for forty-nine and a half hours and then had the ordeal of having her dead baby tgorn apart to be removed in pieces from her body.

The redoubtable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote from Constantinople in 1718 that women there were free of the annoying habit adopted by the English to withdraw from society when noticeably pregnant and then remain at home for a month after the birth. In Turkey, she wrote, there was no shame in becoming pregnant prior to marriage, proof of fertility being regarded as a bonus. After only ten years of marriage families of twelve or thirteen children were common, with older Turkish mothers boasting of broods of twenty five or thirty, so gaining immense respect. When Lady Mary asked how these mothers expected to provide for so many, she was told that the plague was expected to kill off half of them, and usually did so.

As her family increased, so the time available for the Georgian mother to see friends and enjoy a social life decreased. Travel while pregnant and/or nursing a child was difficult, making long journeys unlikely. Methods of contraception were few and far between, consequently most fertile women spent a considerable part of their time pregnant during marriage . Margaret Gainsborough was a rare exception. Bearing ten or twelve children was not unusual, and losing some of them an ever-present fear and a common occurrence. Mothers and fathers were only too aware of the constant threat of disease which ravaged Georgian towns throughout the century. The most frightening were epidemics of typhoid, dysentery, enteric fever and smallpox prevalent in late summer until the first frosts of winter drove them away.

Gainsborough was one of these fathers who was constantly concerned for the health of his beloved daughters when faced with accounts like the following, cited by Amanda Vickery: Anne Gossip had eleven children. Four died in her arms before they were two years old. One son was stillborn, one died aged eleven and two sons died before they were twenty years old. Only one of the eleven outlived the poor mother. This unhappy story was not at all unusual and both mothers and fathers clearly suffered deeply at the loss of infants through the plethora of diseases which threatened their lives.

Even so, each newborn child meant extra expense and responsibility. One clergyman, anticipating the latest addition to his own large family joked with a friend saying he wished he could deal with superflouous children as he did with unwanted kittens: drown those he could not afford.

Gainsborough was not unusual in demonstrating his care and concern for his daughters. Georgian diaries and journals reveal the perhaps surprising fact that fathers often played an active part in childcare, taking charge when wives were away on visits, and taking their turn in the sickroom when necessary.

Many women's lives became so centered on their homes and families after marriage that they lost touch with their girl friends - something that still happens today, especially when babies arrive and the childless feel they have little in common with their former companions.

Pp 335b

21st C

Gainsborough's ghost was here again this week. No sooner had the MollyMaid team arrived to clean, entered the room Gainsborough used as his studio on the first floor overlooking the garden at the back of the house, when one of them called out: "He's here!" The strange and unpleasant smell was back. The last time it appeared was when the Molly Maid team was here a couple of weeks ago. And as soon as they left the house this week, and I came upstairs, the odour had vanished completely. Three of us had smelled the scent - it certainly isn't a matter of the imagination.

I have reason to be grateful that I live in the 21st C this week and not alongside Margaret Gainsborough in the 18th C. Eating an inoffensive egg salad at supper, one of my teeth shattered. Raced off to the dentist next day. He applied his magic and assures me he can save the tooth and there and then fixed up a temporary repair. I thanked the stars for the progress of science in my time.

Pp 329-335

18TH C

Nevertheless it is worth remembering that the ruling classes in the 18th C enjoyed almost absolute power over the lower classes,being in a position to abuse them, had they chosen to do so, without fear of the law.

Servant girls were often totally unprotected, frequently abused by male members of the family and thrown out without ceremony if they became pregnant. Girls of eleven and twelve were regularly used in brothels, no questions asked. Indeed, some of the gentlemen who patronized these establishments believed that no girl over the age of fourteen was worth paying for.

Margaret Gainsborough's deep concern about seeking a good marriage for each of her daughters is understandable. Across all levels of society at the time marriage for women was the ultimate goal, the most momentous decision of their lives, as important to the lowest ranking chambermaid as to the daughter of the house. Make a poor choice in the matter of a husband and you were stuck with him for life. Choose a potential mean sadistic bore, or a man who turned out following marriage to be an alcoholic or a wife-beater and you faced a miserable life of emotional torture or even physical pain. The reason? There was no way out for any ordinary wife and only in exceptional circustances for that of an aristocrat.

The outlook for the spinster daughters Margaret and her older sister Mary, now showing signs of the illness which was to ruin her life, was less than favourable. As we have seen earlier, Mary was to marry the musician Fischer in 1780 but that union lasted only six months before Mary returned to live with the family and remained there for the rest of her life.

Being a penniless spinster in whatever station in life meant dependence on the charity of family, as in this case, or on the generosity of wealthier friends.

Daughters were often persuaded by their mothers to favour an older suitor over a younger man who might, with age, prove to be not quite the prize envisaged. Many a presentable young fellow took to drink after marriage, often developing an uncontrollable temper. Although a romantic partnership was sought in the 18th C and was to be welcomed, a way of life boasting ownership of a coach and six was infinitely preferable to love in a thatched cottage.

As we have seen earlier there was very little for a spinster to do beyond becoming a nuisance to her relatives. If she were lucky enough to have been left a property one means of becoming independent was to take on the role of lodging-house keeper, assuming the honorary title of "Mrs" to achieve some respectability. It was possible to make a good living out of the trade, as Gainsborough's sister demonstrated.

But as far as the Gainsborough girls were concerned this was neither necessary nor acceptable. Mary by this time was incapable of taking any responsible position and Margaret appears to have inherited her mother's claim to a high-born status: she was not prepared to exhibit her prowess as a pianist in return for money, not even to please Queen Charlotte when she signalled an interest in hearing Margaret perform.

There appears to be no record of either girl actually working for a living at any point in their lives and Gainsborough was at pains to make provision for his daughters both before and after his death. Although Mary was said to be a talented draughtsman, no authenticated examples of her drawing, or of Margaret's, have survived, but just might exist among unattributed copies of their father's drawings in various collections. He certainly intended them to become proficient in drawing and it would seem likely that they might have copied his work.

All told Gainsborough painted six double portraits of his daughters and the last one, as mentioned earlier, was painted here in this house in the period 1770-1774. Interestingly, in the fifth double portrait Gainsborough depicted the girls holding portfolios of drawings.

Mary was sixteen and Margaret fifteen when they came to The Circus and they were aged twenty-four and twenty-three years when they left with their parents to live in London. In the time spent in Bath they were at the peak of their lives, being attractive young girls on arrival who matured into handsome women by the time they left, having enjoyed comfortable life with the opportunity of making many contacts in artistic circles in the famous and fashionable city. Gainsborough had a wide-ranging group of famous friends in the worlds of theatre, music and the arts who were frequent visitors to No. 17 The Circus.