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Senate House Library

The House Decorating Firm of ‘A & R Garrett’

Date

Written by
Elizabeth Crawford

In late 19th century London, two trailblazing women ran a successful interior design firm from an unlikely address - 2 Gower Street. Agnes and Rhoda Garrett empowered women in male-dominated trades, pioneering from this unlikely Bloomsbury address.

Number 2 Gower Street today bears a Blue Plaque commemorating it as the home of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who led the campaign to enfranchise women. But in the late 19th century it announced itself as the home of a very different enterprise. As a journalist observed in 1890, it bore ‘a neat brass plate upon the dark green door [informing] the public that here is the residence of A & R Garrett’. By this time ‘R. Garrett’ - Rhoda Garrett (1841-82) – was dead, but the firm of ‘A & R Garrett House Decorators’ remained in business, conducted by Agnes (1845-1935) until her retirement in 1905. She continued living there with her widowed sister, Millicent, and her niece, Philippa, until her death, by which time Senate House was rising, just across the road at the back of the house. 

Rhoda and Agnes Garett
Rhoda (left) and Agnes Garrett

In the 1870s Agnes, one of the children of a prosperous Suffolk maltster, would not have been expected to work, but, like her older sister Elizabeth, the first woman to qualify in Britain as a doctor, had no wish merely to be a ‘daughter-at-home’. Thus, with her cousin Rhoda, she began training in 1871 for a new career - as a ‘house decorator’. In 1875, after an apprenticeship with an architect, the two women set up in business, soon working from their new home in Gower Street. 

Although then a distinctly unfashionable neighbourhood, the cousins were attracted by the solid construction and elegant detailing of the late-18th-century houses, while also appreciating proximity to Tottenham Court Road, centre of the furniture retail trade. After exhibiting successfully at the 1878 Paris Universal Exhibition, they opened a warehouse just across Bedford Square at 4 Morwell Street, where they held stocks of furniture, carpets, wallpaper and textiles, all of which they themselves designed.

Book cover of House Decoration

Although ‘A & R Garrett’ left no business records, we can glean something of the firm’s work by studying their book, Suggestions for House Decoration (1876), illustrated with images drawn from their own surroundings in 2 Gower Street. 

Drawing room of 2 Gower Street

In this view of the drawing room that runs across the first- floor front of the house, we can see, on the left, a corner cabinet known to have been designed by the Garretts. An identical piece survives at Standen, the Sussex country house built for their friends, the Beale family. 

Garett ceiling tile held by Senate House Library
Detail of the Garrett-painted ceiling

Two painted ceilings, only hinted at in the illustrations, were the Garretts’ own work.  That of the first-floor back room is still in place, in the care of the University of London, which owns the building. That from the front room was unstable and is now held, in sections, in Senate House Library’s collections. Analysis showed it was painted directly onto paper, in 77 individual sections, and then glued to the ceiling. The overall impression is of pale green, pink and yellow prettiness, featuring hummingbirds and swags of flowers. In the four corners are portraits of Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo and Rubens, with pencil outlines still visible under their paint.

Scan of Millicent Vince's Decoration and Care of the Home (1923)

‘A & R Garrett’ opened the world of house decorating – or interior design – to women. By running a successful business and taking pupils, such as Millicent Vince, they offered women a method of earning their living that was not only profitable but, and this was important, also socially acceptable. Millicent’s book Decoration and Care of the Home (1923) was dedicated to her teacher, Agnes.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, Senate House Library has put together a small display in the Library highlighting women in Bloomsbury, which features Agnes and Rhoda Garrett. The display accompanied the talk given by Elizabeth Crawford as part of Pascal Theatre Company's March events celebrating 19th century women in Bloomsbury, a project funded by Lottery Heritage Fund: Current Projects - Pascal Theatre Company (pascal-theatre.com)

Elizabeth Crawford’s book Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their Circle, 2002, is available in Senate House Library.

Display on Bloomsbury Women at Senate House Library