Monday, 4 June 2012

How should Artists Depict Servants?

The Laing art gallery is currently running an exhibition exploring depictions of the family in British art and I went along hoping to see how servants fitted into these depictions  (you can see some examples on their Flikr). Sadly, I found only one example included. Plentiful paintings of servants do exist throughout the ages, as proven by a recent (ish) National Portrait Gallery exhibition. Sometimes artists treat servants as luxury objects like jewellery and sometimes they commemorated  servants' loyalty to their employers. Such paintings were often patronising caricatures, but they nonetheless acknowledged  the people who fed children, cooked meals, maintained households and sustained families.

So I was saddened not to see more servants at the Laing, but I was pleased to encounter Bill Brandt's work for the first time. Brandt's photographs juxtaposed "the formal spotless caps and aprons of parlour maids and aprons" with "images of deprivation within poor working-class households" (1). The Laing's selection, for instance, contrasts a very young child stood alone in a dingy, dirty alleyway with two bored and anxious looking housemaids attending to their employers' dinner table. In one image, an absence of care (both state and parental), in the other, a surfeit.

But is Brandt's attempt to portray British class divisions effective? Lucy Delap suggests not. Delap argues that in twentieth-century Britain, 'Great house' service was compulsively 'over-represented', despite 'being highly unrepresentative' of most servant's experiences (2). We have heard these arguments previously on this blog with regards to shows like Downton Abbey. In short, we must ask: Where are all the depictions of working-class servants, or servants in middle and working-class homes? By focusing solely on maids and servants in Great houses, Brandt arguably overlooks the existence of the numerous but culturally invisible working-class servants.

But, I want to ask, could this apparent oversight actually be the point? We are used to seeing servants in Great houses on TV and in films. Brandt's photographs continue this trend, yes, but he portrays these houses as fantastical, almost surreal worlds. The maids' outfits look ridiculous - impractical and stifling and their  their thoughts are clearly elsewhere. Brandt shows that the familiar pop culture image of the thriving Great house full of bustling, committed servants is a fantasy usually dreamt up by employers rather than employees, masters rather than servants.

(1): Lucy Delap, Knowing Their  Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press: 2011).
(2): Ibid.