Household Servants and Slaves: A Visual History, 1300–1700 by Diane Wolfthal - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

Paintbrushes & Broomsticks

Household Servants and Slaves: A Visual History, 1300–1700


Yale University Press 272pp £35

What do medieval and early modern works of art tell us about servants and slaves? The many kinds of servant during this period, from menial maids to court artists, were rarely themselves the subjects of paintings. They filled in the background, like animals, rocks or trees, often in shadow, smaller than the beautiful mistress or powerful master who commissioned the portrait, squashed in at the edge of the frame or disappearing down a darkened passage. Art historians have paid them little attention. Diane Wolfthal wants us to think what it means that the servant is there on the canvas at all. Why include those who sweep the floor, lug the logs and water, change the bed linen and empty the chamber pots?

The absence of chamber pots from such paintings provides a clue. The servant is often there to point up the beauty or wealth of the subject. Picturing them evokes an ideal. The servant, loyal and willing, reflects honour on the household. Well groomed, plainly dressed but neat, the servant appears to be well looked after. Perhaps a sleeve will be rolled up, indicating hard work, and possibly an apron will be tucked up around the waist to keep it from dirt, but mostly the grimier realities of servant life do not figure. The servant might hold a broom or a jug of wine but not a chamber pot. By the end of the 17th century, architects had begun designing grand houses with back stairs so that visitors weren’t ‘annoyed by the sight of foul persons’ going back and forth carrying foul pots. Palladio advised that service areas, the pantries, kitchens and wash houses, be hidden from view ‘like the ignoble and disagreeable’ parts of the body. So too the servants: their sleeping quarters – when they had them, when they weren’t bedding down in the laundry or the kitchen – should be out of sight but near enough for them to come at once when called, hence corridors and lobbies. Intimate knowledge of bodily matters was fundamental to the reciprocal relations involved in service, but nobody wanted to display the fact in oils and hang it on the wall.

One of the few life-sized portraits of a servant is John Riley’s Bridget Holmes. Holmes served royalty and she was ninety-six in 1686 when she was painted holding her broom and ready for work as the king’s ‘Necessary Woman’, responsible for his privy chamber. She’s posed in a

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