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Senate House Library

19th century hand-painted ceiling by pioneering suffragists in online exhibition


Written by
Rebecca Simpson, Communications Manager

Discover the ornate hand-painted ceiling by Agnes and Rhoda Garrett, who set up Britain’s first women-run interior design company, in our archives this International Women's Day...

Carefully preserved in the archives of Senate House Library is an ornate ceiling dating back to 1875, hand-painted by suffragists Rhoda and Agnes Garrett, respectively the cousin and sister of the famous women’s rights pioneers Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Dame Millicent Fawcett. It features in the SHL150 online exhibition at Senate House Library, University of London, which is celebrating 150 years of the Library and its collections.   

Cropped close up of one of the ceiling pieces hand-painted by Agnes & Rhoda Garrett, 1875

Design for life

The painting has a deep border round the room of chains and large bouquets of flowers, geometric patterns, cherubs playing musical instruments and fantastic birds alongside portraits of well-known artists. It is one of two hand-painted ceilings from the main first floor rooms of 2 Gower Street London – Rhoda and Agnes Garrett’s home and business address where they started up the first women-run UK interior design company, A&R Garrett House Decorators.   
The house at 2 Gower St (and Garrett family) was a centre for feminist thought and women’s struggles for equality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and there is a blue plaque on the building commemorating Dame Millicent Fawcett. 
The hand-painted ceiling in Senate House Library’s archives is from the front room of 2 Gower St. After being in situ for 100 years, conservators advised that it was likely to deteriorate if not removed. It was carefully divided into over 75 pieces and placed in the University of London archives, under the direction of the University of London Courtauld Institute of Art in 1975.  

Digital capture of smaller hand-painted ceiling at 2 Gower Street. Photographer: Lloyd Sturdy

Digital capture of the ceiling

The other smaller hand-painted ceiling at the rear of the house was restored by the conservators in 1975 and is still in situ today. The building is closed to the public and is undergoing refurbishment so the ceiling has been digitally captured for people to explore this International Women’s Day. In design, it is very similar to the preserved hand-painted ceiling in the archives, with flowers, geometric patterns, cherubs and fantastic birds. The ceiling also contains portraits of artists such as Rubens, Michaelangelo, Raphael and Van Dyke.   

Dr Naomi Paxton, Suffrage Researcher at the University of London, admiring the hand-painted ceiling at 2 Gower St, London. Photographer: Lloyd Sturdy

Dr Naomi Paxton, Suffrage Researcher at the University of London, performer and presenter, was given special access to 2 Gower St last week for her research and International Women’s Day celebrations. She said:

“This stunning hand-painted ceiling is a fantastic example of the talent, ambition and creativity of these ground-breaking women and their contribution to interior design. It’s also a reminder of the legacy of the pioneering women of the Garrett family, their involvement in the women’s suffrage movement and their campaigns for equal access and representation for women in the workplace. I’m delighted it has been captured digitally and represented in Senate House Library’s online exhibition for people across the world to explore.”  

Commercially, the interior design company was very successful, and heavily prioritised women suppliers and craftspeople wherever possible. However, almost none of their physical interior design work survives, so this archived ceiling is almost certainly the largest surviving preserved piece of decorative ceiling they ever designed.   

Dr Naomi Paxton will be presenting BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking episode on ‘New research into women's history’ out Wednesday 9 March 2022.