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Garrett, R. & A. (1874-1905)

Garrett, R. & A.

London; decorators and furnishers (fl.1874-1905)

Rhoda (1841-82) and Agnes (1845-1935) were cousins and originally worked respectively as a governess and housekeeper. In 1870-71 they both began apprenticeships in the London office of Cottier & Co., completing their 3 year apprenticeships with Jean McKean Brydon (1840-1901). They then embarked on a year’s tour of English country houses and in 1874 established their own firm, R. & A. Garrett House Decorators in London. Coming from a family of ardent political activists, both were members of the Women’s Suffrage Movement with Agnes serving as a joint honorary secretary of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1872. Rhoda made powerful speeches at several meetings and rallies and in 1876 she spoke of the role that women could play ‘extending the gracious influence of the home, [thus] they would help to raise the position of household art, and thus render a real service to the nation’. The firm offered interior decoration services to budget-conscious clients but also designed and sold furniture, wallpaper, textiles and accessories to them. The most substantially documented home on which they worked was their own, 2 Gower Street, London, to which they moved in 1875 and which also served as an office. They also decorated the townhouse of Agnes’s sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her husband, Skelton Anderson, at Upper Berkeley Street, and in 1875 the London and Cambridge homes of Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Agnes later worked alone on the Andersons’ country home, West Hill House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1884, and the country homes of her sisters, Josephine Salmon and Alice Cowell and Rhoda’s half-brother, Edmund Garrett. Outside the family, they worked for Lord Kelvin, Catherine Buckton and Mr & Mrs Gerald Wellesley. One of their most important commissions was for James and Margaret Beale at 32 Holland Park, where they supplied several pieces of furniture to their designs c.1875. This furniture was moved to the Beale’s country house, Standen, when the family moved there permanently in 1894, and remains there under the ownership of the National Trust:

The Standen daybed, corner cabinet and a small ebonized armchair are illus. The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society (2011), pp .88, 91 92 & 94. The daybed was a popular design and was one of the exhibits in their display at the Paris Exhibition of 1878. In 1876 they published Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork, and Furniture, as part of a series of books targeted at a middle-class market by a relation, Rev. W. J. Loftie. This series was successful and was also distributed in America. Most of their furniture designs embraced the ‘Queen Anne’ style but the cousins held principles in accordance with the Arts & Crafts Movement. In their 1876 book they advocated that ‘every material has in itself a beauty and a suitability which is lost or wasted if it is made to imitate something’ and that the readers to ‘never go out of your way to make a thing or a material look like what is is not’. A walnut and mahogany cabinet made in 1875 to Agnes Garrett’s design is in the V&A.

Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cabinet with design attributed to Rhoda Garrett, 1875 [W.14-2017]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1882 Rhoda died of typhoid aged 41 but Agnes continued the firm and in 1887 the Century Guild listed the firm as a member of its collective of designers. The cousins sold their furniture directly to clients from their own warehouse at 4 Morwell Street, London, opened in 1879, and Agnes held at least two furniture exhibitions at this warehouse in 1887 and 1896. In October 1888 the firm exhibited in the first show of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, of which Agnes was an active member. The display included a cupboard, panel paper, carpet, long chair/daybed, tea table, fireside chair, flower stand, pendant and candle sconce.  The daybed, and possibly all/most of the Garretts’ designs, were made by W. A. & S. Smee, London cabinet makers. Although she managed the firm alone after 1882, in her office at 2 Gower Street, she had a ‘trained band of workmen and women upon whose labours she could implicitly rely’ and it is possible that some of the furniture was finished or upholstered in her warehouse. She trained apprentices, including women. R & A Garrett House Decorators ceased trading in 1905.

With her client, James Beale, Agnes was a director of the Ladies’ Residential Chambers Ltd, founded in 1888 to provide moderately-priced flats for working men. R. A. Garrett House Decorators did not decorate these properties but Agnes did serve on the Committee purchasing the furniture and fittings. She served on the Board of the Company until 1931. Another project on which she and the firm worked was the decoration of the New Hospital for Women; in the second half of 1891 she was paid £1,000 for decorative work there.

Source: Daniels, ‘Houses as They might be: Rediscovering Rhoda and Agnes Garrett and their Influence on the Victorian Middle-Class Home’, The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society1850 to the Present (2011).