Saturday, May 27, 2017

Longleat, Wiltshire

Illustrations of the month: Servants’ Hall

A good browse in a favourite secondhand bookshop the other day threw up a small surprise. I was attracted by a book cover bearing the title Before the Sunset Fades and an illustration of a group of people standing in front of a tent. The author’s name was The Marchioness of Bath. The fact that the purple colour of the cover had itself faded added poignancy to the effect: surely this was going to be a lament for the country house life that declined in the period between the two World Wars, written by one who could remember the days of glory?

Well, yes, in a way. This small work of 1951 is indeed about the life of the great house in its Edwardian and Georgian heyday, but most of the book is actually about the lives and duties of the servants. In its brief 32 pages, it tells us about the life of the kitchen, the stillroom, the butler’s pantry, and the rest of the below-stairs world. It recalls servants’ balls and shooting parties, the jobs of the coachman and the bothy boy and the ‘tiger’. It illustrates the servants’ hall and the housekeeper’s parlour.
Longleat: The housekeeper in her parlour
The illustrations are by Cecil Beaton. Beaton is best known as a photographer. He started in the 1920s and by the following decade was a key man on Vogue, having a long career in fashion and society photography and in the post-war period he was a bright old thing, still active and influencing a younger generation of photographers including David Bailey. He was also a notable stage designer.

Beaton was not a great draughtsman, but the illustrations he did for the Marchioness’s book are charming and do a good job at evoking a world unknown to most people. I like the rather stern-looking housekeeper in her parlour, in which a riot of Beatonian squiggles evokes the rather fussy patterned carpet and wallpaper, or the economy with which kitchen workers are caught at their task. The book and its illustrations also summon up forgotten rituals, such as the ceremonial removal of the joint of meat from the servants’ hall after everyone had taken their fill – a procession headed by the steward’s room footman, followed by the ‘upper servants’.

For an upper-class author to dwell on the work of her servants in this way was quite unusual in 1951, even if the overall tone is one of nostalgia – something, the author says, that was shared by the staff themselves – for the allegedly ‘good old days’. She only occasionally allows a note of regret that the servants’ lives weren’t better, noting for example how arduous was the work of the housemaids who were constantly carrying hot water jugs to bedrooms and moving heavy hip-baths around the place. But to write about this at all was unusual. It was decades before the National Trust began to devote the effort they do now to displaying below-stairs areas in country houses and explaining the lives of the staff in kitchen, pantry, and garden. It’s interesting to see the Marchioness and her illustrator doing this just six years after the end of the war.
Longleat: the kitchen


Hels said...

I imagine the author chose Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) to illustrate her book because he was so familiar with stately homes in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. But that begs the question: why did she not use his gorgeous photos instead?

Art and Architecture, mainly

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Beaton was friend and neighbour of the Baths - he would have been a natural choice. He Was most at home in the photographic studio, or settings in which he could stage grand effects. It may be that the kind of reportage-style photography that he'd have needed to do in the servants' hall or kitchen didn't appeal to him, or suit his skills, so he chose to do drawings.

Stephen Barker said...

Osbert Lancaster would have been a good choice for providing illustrations to this book as he had an eye for period detail.