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Mrs Mary Garnett (1724-1809) in the Marble Hall

Thomas Barber the elder (Nottingham 1771 - Nottingham 1843)

Category

Art / Oil paintings

Date

circa 1800

Materials

Oil on canvas

Measurements

895 x 690 cm (36 x 26 in)

Place of origin

England

Order this image

Collection

Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire (Accredited Museum)

On show at

Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, Midlands, National Trust

NT 108766

Caption

Mrs Garnett was the housekeeper at Kedleston from 1766 to 1809. It was one of the functions of housekeepers in country houses to show strangers round. She was the "well-drest elderly housekeeper, a most distinct articulator", who escorted Dr Johnson and Boswell in 1777. Most of her kind had to rely on fallible lists, traditions and memories, but she holds a Catalogue with all the essential facts, first printed for this purpose in 1769. She is depicted standing in the Marble Hall at Kedleston, where the tour began, waiting to show visitors round.

Summary

Oil painting on canvas, Mrs Mary Garnett (1724-1809) in the Marble Hall at Kedleston by Thomas Barber the elder (Nottingham 1771 - Nottingham 1843), circa 1800. A portrait of Mrs Mary Garnett, housekeeper at Kedleston Hall from 1766-1809. She is shown as a mature woman, three-quarter length, standing beside the fluted alabaster column in Robert Adam's Marble Hall, turned slightly to right, gazing at spectator. She holds open a book marked Catalogue of Pictures, Stature &c. at Kedleston of the collection in her right hand , offerring it to the next prospective visitor, the first of such guidebooks was published in 1769. Wearing large bonnet with trailing bands over shoulders, black fingerless gloves, she is ready to guide the visitors, one of whom was particularly impressed was Dr Johnson in 1777. Another tourist, James Plumptre, wrote in 1793: 'Of all the Housekeepers I ever met with at Noblemans Houses this was the most obliging and intelligent...she seeme'd to take delight in her business." Almost from the day of completion of the building of Kedkleston, it was open to respectable visitors. This is a sympathetic portrayal of a servant by the artist, based in Nottingham, who normally depicted the local aristocracy.

Full description

Mrs Garnett was Housekeeper at Kedleston between 1766 and 1809 - a surprising length of time for one who can only have risen to this post from other duties - which perhaps accounted for her already seeming old in 1777. It was in that year that she took Samuel Johnson and Boswell around the house: "Our names were sent up, and a well-drest elderly housekeeper, a most distinct articulator, shewed us the house .... We saw a good many fine pictures .... There is a printed catalogue of them which the housekeeper put into my hand; I should like to view them at leisure." (i) Two years earlier, Mrs Garnett had made an equally favourable impression on William Bray: "the uncommon politeness of the housekeeper who showed [Kedleston Hall] added not a little to the entertainment"(ii). Whilst James Plumptre's ecstatic account of her in 1793 not only illustrates a little of the modus operandi of country-house visiting in the 18th century, but implies how different was Mrs Garnett from most of her kind: "We entered the House at the Servant's Hall, by a door under the Portico, put down our names, and were then shewn up into the Grand Hall, where the Housekeeper joined us. Of all the Housekeeper[s] I ever met with at a Noblemans Houses [sic], this was the most obliging and intelligent I ever saw. There was a pleasing civility in her manner which was very ingratiating, she seem'd to take a delight in her business, was willing to answer any questions which were ask'd her, and was studious to shew the best lights for viewing the pictures and setting off the furniture" (iii) It was an important part of the business of house servants — and generally of the housekeeper - to show respectable visitors around notable houses. There are records of a party going to view Helmingham as early as 1657, and of perfect strangers being shown round and treated at Claydon in 1681 (iv). Nor could Celia Fiennes (who remarked on Forde Abbey's not being visitable as a peculiarity in 1698) have made her visits without staff ready and able to show her round. What was unusual, was for the housekeeper herself to be painted - the portrait-shower (for it was the identities of sitters in portraits, and the stories associated with them, that they were chiefly expected to retail, not matters of attribution or iconography) portrayed (v). There is, however, a very battered pastel painted by George Chace in 1811, of Mrs Purser: "Housekeeper for nearly forty years to Petworth"; whilst Edward Blore, quite exceptionally, actually depicts a housekeeper expounding the beauties of the Great Chamber at Canons Ashby to a trio of tourists around 1825 . The fallibility of such guides is obvious, and Horace Walpole (as one who was particularly interested in the subjects of portraits) has many a cautionary tale about them: from Raynham in 1744, where: "I showed the house to the housekeeper, who is a new one, and did not know one portrait; I suppose has never dared to ask my Lord"; to Petworth in 1764, where the 'Proud' 6th Duke of Somerset: "having survived all the servants that were possessed of accurate lists of the paintings, he refused to grant new lists, or copies, to the new servants, so that when he died, half the portraits were unknown by the family"; and descending to low comedy at Wrest in 1736: "On the great staircase is a picture of the Duchess's [of Kent]; I said 'twas very like: 'Oh dear, Sir', said Mrs.Housekeeper, 'it's too handsome for my Lady Duchess; her Grace's chin is much longer than that.'" (vi) The remedies against such ignorance were two-fold: to inscribe the identities of portraits on the pictures themselves (labels on frames are a 19th century invention), as the most passionate portrait-collectors did, (vii) from Lord Lumley to Lord Wharton and beyond (Horace Walpole was perfectly prepared to spring up a ladder, to put identities upon his friends' collections of portraits); or to have a regular catalogue printed. Such there was at Kedleston, from 1769 onwards (when, Leslie Harris has found, 200 were printed, at a cost of £8.1s.Od) (viii). This guide went through at least two more editions in the same format up until about 1790, to take account of the successive expansions of the collections, and it is recognisably a copy of this that Mrs. Garnett holds, ready to "put it into the hand" of the next enquiring visitor. It is, perhaps, a reflection of the fact that catalogues of this type were intended more to supplement the deficiencies of housekeepers' memories than to provide much in the way of meaningful explanation, that patent errors of fact and orthography went uncorrected from edition to edition; and, in the case of Kedleston, that Sir George Hayter's attempts to correct them on a copy of the 1856 edition in 1859 were simply largely disregarded by the Lord Scarsdale who had invited his corrections, when a revised edition was published in 1861. Thomas Barber, though based in Nottingham, had a considerable practice amongst the local aristocracy, and one by no means restricted to portraits of servants (though one of his best performances is Two Park Keepers at Wollaton, painted for Lord Middleton). There are a number of portraits by him at Hardwick and Shugborough, as well as at Kedleston, but it is Mrs Garnett who perhaps best exemplifies both his provincial honesty, and his sympathy with such a sitter. Notes: (i) Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G.B. Hill, revd. L.F. Powell, vol. iii [1934], entry for 19 Sept. 1777, p.161; it was on this journey that Johnson delivered himself of his surprising definition of pleasure: "If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation". (ii)William Bray, Sketch of a Tour in Derbyshire and Yorkshire, 1st edn., 1777 [p. 72]; 2nd edn. 1783, p.116. Bray's visit to Derbyshire is datable by his (sole) entry in his diary for 1775, under Sept. 28th (cf. F.E. Bray, 'Extracts from the Diary of William Bray, the Surrey historian, 1756 -1800', Surrey Archaeological Collections, Surrey Archaeological Society, vol. XLVI (1938), p.47. (iii) James Plumptre, Journal of a Tour into Derbyshire in the year 1793, Cambridge University Library, Add. MSS. 5804, ff.8 -9. I am most grateful to Oliver Garnett [no known relation!] to alerting me to these references in Bray and Plumptre, and to his father, Richard Garnett, for kindly transcribing them. (iv) cf. Memoirs of the Verney Family, ed. Margaret Verney, vols. iii [1894], p.406 and iv [1899], p.353. (v) British Museum, reproduced on the cover of The National Trust guide to Canons Ashby. (vi) The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence, vols. XXX (1961), p.81; XL (1980), p.318. vol. IX (1941), p.4. (vii) Leslie Harris, 'The Picture Collection at Kedleston Hall', The Connoisseur, July 1978, p.217. (adapted from the author's prepublicatin/unedited exhibition catalogue, Alastair Laing, In Trust for the Nation, 1995)

Provenance

Presumably at Kedleston from the time that it was painted, circa 1800; first recorded in the Wardrobe in 1849; among the contents of Kedleston purchased by the National Trust with the aid of a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund in 1986, when the house and park were given to the National Trust by Francis John Nathaniel Curzon, 3rd Viscount Scarsdale (1924-2000)

Credit line

Kedleston Hall, The Scarsdale Collection (acquired with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and transferred to The National Trust in 1987)

Marks and inscriptions

Verso: Inscribed on stretcher: By Barber/About 1800/No.32 [twice] Verso: Stamps on canvas: MADE IN STONE […..]…INS…..LINEN Excise stamp with crown over 100 Verso: Inscribed on frame: No.16 State Dressing Room

Makers and roles

Thomas Barber the elder (Nottingham 1771 - Nottingham 1843)

Exhibition history

In Trust for the Nation, National Gallery, London, 1995 - 1996, no.1

References

In Trust for the Nation: Paintings from National Trust Houses (exh cat) (Alastair Laing) The National Gallery, London, 22 November 1995 - 10 March 1996 James Plumptre's Britain The Journals of a Tourist in the 1790s (ed. Ian Ousby), Hutchinson 1992, p.62 Rowell 2018 Christopher Rowell, ‘Women Artists, Collectors and Patrons’, National Trust Historic Houses & Collections Annual, 2018, pp.8-9

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