The Circus

The Circus

Pp 235-241

18th C

Major changes in furnishing houses occurred in the 1740s, at about the time of the Gainsborough's marriage in London. In Bath painted wainscots and marble fireplaces were introduced to John Wood's newly-built Georgian houses down in the centre of the old town. The former stained wooden floors were increasingly being covered by carpets, while expensive mahogany and walnut replaced the early fashion for oak furniture. The latest chairs were often upholstered and were much more comfortable, although this new fashion had its drawbacks. Mrs James Boswell struggled to mask her annoyance when that difficult house-guest, Dr Johnson, came to stay. He was known far and wide for his uncouth habits and on one occasion in the dark grey days of November 1773 he upset his long-suffering hostess by turning the candles downwards to improve the illumination of the book he was reading, ignoring the rivers of wax dripping on to the newly-upholstered chairs and the carpet beneath them.

Reception rooms had, until this time, been sparsely furnished by 21st standards, but mid 18th C items like free-standing screens, looking glasses and brass fittings were introduced, while extensive and more expensive lengths of fabric were used in bed hangings and covers. On marriage, Mary Gainsborough ordered no less than sixty yards of white satin and a similar quantity of white sarsenet lining to dress the bed.

By the time Gainsborough signed the lease for No. 17, Georgian houses were cosier, lighter and more opulent than ever before, with down beds, soft blankets and fine linen enjoyed by the family, if not by the servants who cared for them.

Arthur Trimnell, upholsterer of Westgate Street, Bath, guaranteed to use nothing but "curled hair" (presumably horse-tail) to stuff his chair seats.
Damasks and silks now replaced the coarser fabrics used for bedcovers twenty years earlier. Architect John Wood noted then that Bath matrons, their daughters and their maids were hard at work with needle and thread between seasons transforming the popular fabric fustion (a thick, twilled, short-napped cotton cloth, usually dyed in dark, serviceable colours) with floral crewel work to give their beds what was in Wood's opinion "a gaudy look."

Wood-panelled interiors were giving way to brightly painted walls. When we moved here the walls of Gainsborough's parlour were scraped back to reveal a stencilled pattern dating from Regency times - no sign of Gainsborough sketches, however. In Georgian houses separate dining rooms were rare. All reception rooms were used for entertaining and one or two small folding or drop-side tables were often set up in front of the fire by servants who then served an informal meal to the family, removing the tables afterwards.

A set of folding doors often separated the pairs of rooms on ground and first floors. Known as "weddding" or "marriage" doors, these could be folded back to open up the reception areas for a large evening party or closed for more informal use.

Circus kitchens were situated in the basement, with a flight of stairs leading down from the rear of the main hall. The original staircase remains in place in No. 17.

In this house this broad stair rising from the ground floor entrance hall leads to a landing with a large window overlooking the garden, rising again to the first floor area which in Margaret Gainsborough's time was reserved for her husband's professional activities. His clients were shown up to the drawing room (used as his exhibition room) by a servant. This handsome room lined with paintings on three walls, its three tall windows facing The Circus and with a coal fire burning brightly in the grate, saw many a famous sitter taking tea while the artist prepared his paints and adjusted his easel in the adjoining studio.

An internal staircase leading to the first floor was inserted in the late 1940s but part of the original studio remains, facing the garden at the rear of the house. Gainsborough had the central section of the three-part Venetian window in his studio lengthened upwards, one storey in height, to admit more of the northern light much favoured by artists. The outline of the extension to the window, now filled in, can be seen clearly from the private walled garden but it is not visible from the street.

The stairs rising through the main hall from the first floor led to bedrooms occupied by the Gainsborough parents and perhaps their daughters on the second floor. Somehow accommodation had to be found for Thomas's nephew Gainsborough Dupont and for his niece Sophia, both children of his sisters, who spent a good deal of their childhood living with their uncle in The Circus.

Gainsborough Dupont was the second son of Sarah, Gainsborough's second sister and her husband Philip Dupont, a carpenter in Sudbury. The boy was apprenticed to his uncle in 1772 and remained with him until Gainsborough died. Dupont was generally considered to be a second-rate painter whose work was adequate but not good enough to satisfy the Royal Academy which refused three of his attempts to become an academician. Gainsborough was always kind to his relatives and paid Dupont generously.

Sophia was born in 1762, daughter of Gainsborough's sister Susan Gardiner, and the little girl spent much of her childhood under Margaret Gainsborougjh's supervision in Bath.

In addition to the family, No. 17 had to provide accommodation for the female servants, paying guests and visiting family and friends and their servants.

Gainsborough was known to be fond of his horse, a grey, a gift from his friend Walter Wiltshire, which was probably stabled at the rear of the garden in what is now Circus Mews. When he left Bath to live in London he was determined to keep the horse with him and chose to ride him all the way to the capital in order to do so.

The garden, about 50 metres in length, is fully enclosed within high stone walls. When the Gainsboroughs lived here the servants' lavatory was most likely housed in the rear area of the basement, or in a lean-to in the garden, then most probably used as a yard.

Family and guests were provided with chamber pots in their bedrooms and sometimes a commode, a piece of furniture designed as a cabinet which, when opened, contained a wooden seat over a removeable porcelain pot which, like the chamber pots, were emptied into buckets to be carried all the way downstairs by the maid responsible for the unpleasant task of emptying the slops. A chamber pot was often provided in the dining room in large houses, placed behind a screen and intended for the use of gentlemen who freqently drank a great deal at dinner.

One foreign aristocrat described an occasion on which he found a number of chamber pots lined up on the sideboard. To his discomfort he realised he was required to relieve himself in full view of his fellow guests who all continued to drink and talk. after the ladies had left the room. "One has no kind of concealment," he reported, adding that he found this practice of the upper English classes indecent and totally unacceptable. Ladies, of couse, retired to their hostess's dressing room to use her commode in relative privacy.