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."