Portrait of the Poor

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Review of 'Below Stairs', National Portrait Gallery, London

Wandering through the National Portrait Gallery is always fascinating, and free. You pass kings and queens, politicians, explorers, diplomats, aristocrats and, in the later rooms, sports and film stars.

What you don't see very much of is poor people. Until cameras became cheap, very few working people could have their image reproduced. Portrait painting was overwhelmingly about celebrating the achievements, power and wealth of the elite, with the odd poor poet or footballer made good. But this new exhibition, which you do have to pay for, shows that throughout the centuries a handful of servants did have their portraits painted. And this collection shows them to be a fascinating glimpse of the hidden world below stairs, and class and power relationships.

The earliest portraits date back to the 1600s. These tended to feature the servants in the lord's retinue, just as minstrels, jesters and champions, many of whom would themselves come from high-ranking families. The servants who waited, washed and worked were largely invisible. These portraits tended to come from outlying rural areas of the country where feudal links between master and some servants lasted longer.

By the 18th century households had become more segregated. There was a developing gap between 'upper' and 'lower' servants. Upper servants - such as nannies, gardeners and cooks - often had a close relationship with their masters and had their portraits painted.

In 1790, 90 percent of servants were female. But 90 percent who had their portraits painted were male and most closely associated with their masters' leisure interests, such as gamekeepers.

One of the finest paintings is by Willam Hogarth, famous for his pictures of the darker side of life for the lower classes in 18th century London. Servants became a popular subject in the 19th century, when moralising pictures were the norm. Some show wicked servants getting their just deserts, but others are compassionate pictures of the exhaustion and constant humiliation suffered by many women servants. Some even deal with the widespread sexual exploitation of women servants, brought to attention by Richardson's novel Pamela.

One of the most interesting sections of the exhibition focuses on black and Asian servants. By 1750 there were around ten to 20 thousand black people living in London and other large towns, most brought in as slaves. It became fashionable to have a young black servant boy, and they are painted here like cute little lap dogs. Many suffered a cruel fate when they became too old to be cute and were shipped off to slave plantations.

There is a constant tension that emerges in this exhibition. On the one side is the image of the loyal, trusty servant, like Bridget Holmes, painted when she was 96. Bridget was the 'necessary woman' to generations of royals, emptying their chamber pots.

On the other side were the unruly servants. There seems to have been a constant fear among the 'well to do' that their servants were cheating them, stealing their booze, nibbling their dinners, and disrespecting them. The exhibition includes fierce tirades against naughty servants by the writers Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe.

The rich needed servants. They had to be waited on hand and foot and the size of their household was a barometer of wealth and status. But by having servants they brought the class struggle right into their own parlours - and bedrooms, kitchens and stables.

Servants are making a comeback. The numbers employed as domestic workers are going up again, although nothing like the 1931 figure, which showed 1.3 million domestic servants in Britain, most of them women.

Today they are more likely to be the subject of reality TV shows and period dramas. But this exhibition reminds us of how miserable, powerless and poor servants were and how, despite everything, they constantly managed to get one over on those who considered themselves the rightful masters.