The Circus

The Circus


18th C

In the autumn of 1764 when the Gainsboroughs were living in what is known today as Landsdown House on Lansdown Hill, the girls' lives were changed dramatically: they were sent away to a boarding school in Chelsea, London. Molly was then 14 and Margaret just 13 years old.

This decision must have been difficult for Thomas Gainsborough, as he was a most affectionate father and fond of their company. But perhaps Margaret recognized the benefits the girls might accrue by making influential friends in the larger environment of London, bearing in mind the matter of finding suitable husbands in the not too distant future. One of the reasons Gainsborough agreed to the plan was that it enabled him to achieve his aim to have the girls taught to draw.

He told his friend James Unwin that it was his intention, too, to teach both girls "to paint landscape." He believed both were capable of it, given time and effort. His reason for doing so was to give them the means of becoming financially independent in future, should the need arise.

A year later, in November 1765, Molly and Margaret were still boarding at Blacklands School for Girls, a building facing Chelsea Common, quite close to what is now Sloane Square. The school remained active until 1820, attracting pupils from well-known families. Betsy Boswell, the daughter of James, was one of them.

We know something of the routine probably followed by Molly and Margaret through the eyes of a pupil who was a boarder a few years later at a girls' school in Bath: Belvedere House in Lansdown, just a few minutes walk up the hill from The Circus. This school was run by the Lee sisters in a handsome mansion on Lansdown Road. An unashamedly expensive establishment, it catered for the daughters of aspiring and wealthy gentlemen. In its advertisements the Misses Lee made clear the emphasis offered was on dancing and drawing lessons, and along with the usual curriculum, they assured prospective parents that their daughters would receive instruction in "Purity of manners and self-respect taught by example."

The three Lee sisters Sophia, Harriet and Ann were all highly popular figures in Bath society, enjoying the intimate friendship of celebrities like actress Sarah Siddons and the artist Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mrs Siddons sent her youngest daughter, Cecilia, a precocious child, to attend their school, and the actress herself starred in Sophia Lee's play "Almeyda, Queen of Granada."

Why, I wonder, were the Gainsborough girls sent away to board in London when there were clearly acceptable schools available in Bath? I suspect that Margaret assumed her daughters, who could be wayward from time to time, would benefit from the discipline imposed on them as boarders, and she might have been persuaded by the thought that in London the girls were more likely to meet a more cosmopolitan group of fellow students who, in turn, might be expected to provide introductions to well-connected young men, their brothers and their friends perhaps who, in turn, might prove to be suitable husbands. This was, of course, the main concern of any aspiring 18th C mother of teenage daughters. In this respect, however, Margaret Gainsborough was doomed to fail.

Now why, you might ask, were respectable women like the Lee sisters, so well-placed in Georgian society, concerned with running a school, not for the benefit of the poor as might be expected, but for personal profit? Their history is intriguing.

The Lee girls had enjoyed a privileged upbringing but after their mother's death their father found himself in financial difficulties. He was sent to the debtors' prison, leaving his poor girls to fend for themselves. Eventually he was rescued by his daughter Sophia's success as a writer. Her work was so popular that she was able to pay off her father's debts and then set up the school to take care of her own and her sisters' futures.