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.