Agnes Garrett (1845-1935)

Sector: Household Goods

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states in its entry for Syrie Maugham (1879-1955) that she was ‘the first English woman to pursue interior decoration as a career’. But nearly five decades before she opened her shop in Baker Street in 1922, Agnes Garrett and her cousin, Rhoda Garrett (1841-1882), set themselves up in business as ‘House Decorators’, the first British business to be registered and run by women. Blazing a trail for others to follow, research by Miranda Garrett suggests that there were at least another eighteen female-led interior decoration companies operating in Britain between then and 1899.

Agnes was younger sister to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, pioneering doctor, and two years older than Millicent Garrett Fawcett, suffragist leader. While Agnes had a stable upbringing in a relatively wealthy family with a good education, Rhoda’s family situation was more difficult. Her father was a clergyman with low pay and a large family and Rhoda was required her to earn her own living. Their personalities complemented one another, Rhoda bringing the spark, wit and ‘go’ to make headway in a commercial field as yet untrodden by women, Agnes the warmth and sympathy needed to create strong relationships with clients and suppliers.

Rhoda Garrett and Agnes Garrett
Rhoda and Agnes Garrett, undated

Getting started in this field was not easy but the cousins had the benefit of their family connections to help them structure their own three-year apprenticeship and particularly their link to the Scottish architect, J.J. Stevenson. Skelton Anderson, his cousin, married Elizabeth Garrett in 1871, the year Agnes and Rhoda began their training with Daniel Cottier, who had worked with J.J. Stevenson in Glasgow. His was a firm of art furniture makers, mural decorators and glass and tile painters. After eighteen months, they switched to another Scot, John McKean Brydon, who had also worked with J.J. Stevenson. Brydon later specialised in the design of public buildings but at that point was working on smaller commissions, including the studio of the artist James Tissot in St John’s Wood.

A short newspaper column in 1872 noted that ‘house decoration is becoming one of the fine arts, one which Mr Morris and Mr D Rossetti have brought to great perfection. Miss Agnes Garrett, sister of Mrs Anderson and Mrs Fawcett, and Miss Rhoda Garrett, her cousin, have made it their profession.’ It would seem from this that Agnes and Rhoda were doing more than creating a ‘new source of female industry’, they were making it a reputable, professional option. Nevertheless, their three years of training included a lot of hard graft as they learned all aspects of interior design, from mixing paints, drawing to scale, constructing a drain and laying a gas pipe as well as the elements which combined creativity with technical skills such as wallpaper and furniture design.

In parallel, they were both actively campaigning for women’s suffrage. Rhoda had great charisma and was an eloquent speaker, witty and funny, with a ‘quiet, sarcastic way of dealing with antagonists which, through rather galling to them, is exceedingly effective with the public.’ She took a leading role in the unsuccessful campaign to pass the Women’s Disabilities Removal Bill in 1872 to give women the vote and travelled across the country making her case, in one month alone speaking in Cheltenham, Worcester, Hereford, Tewkesbury, Leominster, Market Lavington, Glastonbury and Taunton. In the autumn of 1873, she campaigned in a high-profile and contentious election in Taunton to prevent the election of a Liberal anti-suffragist, Henry James, but to no avail. He was promptly made Solicitor-General. Rhoda became increasingly prominent through the 1870s. Common themes were the importance of women having access to education and training opportunities if they were to be competitive for jobs and pushed for the inclusion of girls in any institutes being set up to develop technical skills, and the basic principle that taxation and representation should go side by side, with those paying for the support of laws having a voice in their formation. Agnes became one of the honorary secretaries of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, for a brief period of time working alongside Emma Paterson and often attended meetings with Rhoda though spoke far less frequently.

Since they were the only women working in their field, they needed to be able to work and network effectively with men. Both were members of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Sciences. A progressive organisation, from 1857 until 1884 it held annual conferences in different cities around the UK where both men and women presented papers on the Law, Education, Public Health and the Economy & Trade. Over the years, speakers included Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Faithfull, Octavia Hill, F.D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley and Elizabeth Garrett. Rhoda and Agnes were also members of the Albemarle Club, which was open to both men and women.

In 1874, the two women launched their business from their flat on the edge of Regent’s Park and in 1875 they put their principles into action when they moved to 2 Gower Street. (This building now bears a blue plaque commemorating its occupancy by Millicent Fawcett but she did not move in until after the death of her husband, Henry, in November 1884.) In 1876, the publishers Macmillan launched a new series of books under the banner ‘Art at Home’. The series editor was the Reverend William John Loftie, who also had connections to the Andersons / Stevensons and the second book in the series was ‘Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture’, written by Rhoda and Agnes. (Two decades later, in 1897, Agnes would invite Loftie to be her guest at the Women’s Jubilee Dinner, perhaps in recognition of this important early support.)

As many interior designers have done since, Agnes and Rhoda used their own work in their house as a calling card. They were advocates of a baroque style in reaction to fussy and cluttered Victorian environments, seeking inspiration from the Queen Anne period. The composer, Hubert Parry (of ‘Jerusalem’ fame), was a good friend and stayed with them there for two weeks in 1876. He reflected on how restful he found ‘the quiet and soothing colour of the walls and decoration’ and later became a client.

Early in the small 90-page book, they emphasised that their focus was ‘middle-class houses’ and people of ‘moderate means’; and that all principles, ‘and especially those of house decorators’, must be taken with a pinch of salt. Theirs included:

  • ‘Never go out of your way to make a thing or a material look like what is not’. In other words, don’t paint wood to look like marble.
  • ‘Do not go out of your way to hide the construction of your house or of any part of your furniture’. This was a riposte to the Victorian habit of using vasts amount of ivy and other greenery indoors, leading Gertrude Jekyll to comment that she sometimes walked into rooms which felt more like thickets.
  • ‘Always secure a considerable amount of plain neutral colour in your rooms’. Harmony is more beautiful than contrast; too much pattern is tiring.
  • ‘Don’t overload your rooms with ornament.’ This goes directly to the Victorian trend for clutter. Their view was that there was an important difference between a house and a museum.

In the same year their book was published, the National Association for the Promotion of Social Sciences expanded their agenda to include a section on Art for the first time. At their annual conference, that year held in Liverpool, Rhoda spoke on ‘How to Improve the Interior of Modern Houses, with special reference to their Furniture and Decorations.’ She remarked at the end that ‘women’s sphere and women’s mission is one of the most important problems of the present day, but here, at least, in the decoration and beautifying of the house, no one will dispute their right to work.’ Rhoda received the largest audience of any speaker over the course of the conference: possibly among the listeners was Louise Jopling, one of the many artists in attendance. She certainly decided to pay the Garretts a visit a couple of months later.

In 1878, Rhoda and Agnes made a submission to the Paris Exhibition of ‘furniture and fittings for a room’, which received an honourable mention in the awards. The following year they opened a showroom at 4 Morwell Street, a 3 minute walk from their house just behind Tottenham Court Road, which also doubled as a warehouse for the furniture, metalwork, wallpaper, fabric and carpets they were designing. Little information survives on their clients and commissions and few images exist of their work. However, one couple who definitely bought furniture from them were James and Margaret Beale. James was a successful solicitor, for whom the architect Philip Webb later designed Standen House in Sussex. There can still be seen armchairs, a daybed, dressing table, sofa, bookcase and wardrobe designed by Rhoda and Agnes, working with cabinet makers W.A & S Smee on their construction.

Cabinet made by Rhoda Garrett and Agnes Garrett (1875)
Cabinet made in 1875 by ‘A. & R. Garrett, House Decorators’ (c) Victoria & Albert Museum

Rhoda may have been an active campaigned but she always suffered from ill-health. The composer Ethel Smyth commented that ‘the shell was so obviously too frail for the spirit.’ In November 1882, she died from typhoid fever, aged just 41. Agnes was left to carry on the business alone. There was some suggestion later that Rhoda was the one ‘whose wonderful skill in designing and admirable taste it mainly owes its success’ but the ‘lucrative’ business thrived for another twenty years, suggesting Agnes must have brought her own talents to the partnership, among them business aptitude and an exacting attention to detail.

In February 1885, the Women’s Industrial Exhibition opened in Clifton, Bristol. Organised by Helen Blackburn (1842-1903), who had been involved in the feminist movement since she was 17, it ran for a month. Although some saw it as ‘a decided novelty’ with its focus on women’s work, it marked a step change in the way work was starting to be seen as not only acceptable for gentlewomen but positively supported.

Painters were well-represented, among them Louise Jopling. Morris & Co sent rugs handwoven by women. A section on dress included examples of divided skirts including one by Ada Nettleship. ‘Misses Rhoda and Agnes Garrett’ created ‘one of the most attractive rooms in the exhibition’, a model boudoir, with a tinge of sunflower, a room ‘chaste without being cold and the furniture is tasteful as well as of original design.’ Here, too, the carpet was made by women from a design by Agnes. (An important collection of paintings, photographs and busts of historical or well-known ladies was also on display. Helen Blackburn bequeathed it to University College, Bristol, which at some point managed to lose it…)

In October 1888, an ‘Arts and Crafts Exhibition’ was put on at the New Gallery. The clue is in the title: it included work by all those we now so strongly associate with the Arts and Crafts movement: William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Walter Crane, Charles Voysey and William Benson. Alongside them was a complete drawing room set from R & A Garrett, again generally commended. Agnes was holding her own in a prestigious field.

The kudos from these exhibitions was clearly welcome, but it didn’t pay the bills. In 1889, J.M. Brydon started work on his latest commission, the New Hospital for Women on Euston Road. While the architect was male, it was otherwise an entirely female-run enterprise, founded by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, after whom it was later named, with an all-female medical team. ‘It is not the medical specialty alone which constitutes the attraction of the place, it is the pervading presence of the womanly element manifesting itself in a hundred ways, in friendly personal interest, in kindly attention to small comforts and, above all, in sympathetic recognition of the mental as well as the bodily needs of the patients’, reported the Illustrated London News.

Agnes was responsible for the interior decoration which was viewed as a significant factor in this ‘sympathetic quality’, where nothing was ‘utilitarian, dull or negative’ but instead ‘artistically beautiful and suggestive of hope and good cheer.’ Tiles of lapis lazuli blue decorated the bottom half of the staircase walls with an embossed paper painted yellow above the dado rail. Each of the four wards had a slightly different colour scheme. The same thought had gone into the rooms for nurses as for patients, with wallpapers designed by Rhoda and Agnes. There was a library and reading room on the ground floor also designed by Agnes. ‘The hospital is a signal triumph of women’s enterprise’, concluded the journalist. Perhaps it was successes like these that gave Agnes the confidence to insist, from 1890, that she would only take commissions for entire rooms.

In parallel, Agnes continued actively to promote interior decoration to girls and women as a career. She wrote for the magazine for girls, Atalanta, as well as the Universal Review and was interviewed in the Women’s Penny Paper in 1890. The employment column in the Queen frequently referred to her apprenticeship scheme, a three-year programme costing £100 a year. ‘She does not consider this period at all too short to learn all the branches of the trade. A practical decorator ought to have a thorough knowledge of geometrical drawing’ so that furniture designs could be easily copied by cabinet makers, ‘be able to design wall-papers and carpets and she should possess some architectural knowledge in addition.’ The message was clear: enthusiasm and a good eye were not enough for a serious career.

Agnes retired from her business in around 1905 after a thirty-year career which was successful both artistically and commercially. On her 80th birthday one of her former apprentices, Millicent Vince, paid her fulsome tribute, for both the quality of her work and the generosity of her approach. ‘In those thirty years she left the beautiful stamp of her art on the interiors of scores of houses in London elsewhere. In it all you could feel her gift for design and construction…We are very fortunate that such a high standard was set from the beginning and that the pioneer was so rare and strong a character, and so true an artist.’

Agnes Garrett and Millicent Fawcett in 1928 after the Royal Assent to the Equal Franchise Act.
Agnes Garrett sitting in the back of the car, with her younger sister Millicent in the front

She remained active in the suffrage movement after her retirement and her long life meant that she was able to see the fruits of her labour. In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act was passed, finally giving men and women the vote on the same terms and the 1920s and early 1930s saw a resurgence in the role of women in field of interior decoration. The names of Agnes and Rhoda may be missing from both the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square and the blue plaque on 2, Gower Street but the role they both played in developing the credibility of women’s commercial enterprises cannot be understated. Now nearly 150 years after they founded their firm, that role has started to receive more attention and in 2018 they were both commemorated with a plaque on ‘The Firs’, the house they rented for many years in the village of Rustington, Sussex.

The best source on the lives and work of Agnes and Rhoda Garrett is Chapter 4, ‘The Home’ in ‘Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their Circle’ by Elizabeth Crawford. It is through her research that there is now a much fuller understanding of their activities.

Other sources include:

Framlingham Weekly News 22/4/1871; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 4/10/1871; The Bradford Observer 6/6/1871; Dundee Courier and Argus 6/3/1872; the Bedfordshire Mercury 27/4/1872; Hampshire Independent 12/12/1874; Willesden Chronicle 2/1/1885; Pall Mall Gazette 20/2/1885; The Western Daily Press 26/2/1885; the Leeds Mercury 3/3/1885; Women’s Penny Paper 18/1/1890; The Illustrated London News 10/9/1892; The Gentlewoman 24/7/1897; The Woman’s Leader 11/9/1925

‘Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture’ by Rhoda and Agnes Garrett (1876); ‘Twenty Years of My Life’ 1867-1887 by Louise Jopling (1925)

Garrett, Miranda (2018) Professional Women Interior Decorators in Britain, 1871 – 1899. PhD thesis, University of the Arts London.

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