‘A delight in her business’

Portrait of Mrs Mary Garnett by Thomas Barber the elder, c.1800, at Kedleston Hall, inv. no. 108766. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Portrait of Mrs Mary Garnett by Thomas Barber the elder, c.1800, at Kedleston Hall, inv. no. 108766. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I was recently made aware of this portrait of Mrs Mary Garnett (1724-1809), the housekeeper at Kedleston Hall. She is shown in the Marble Hall at Kedleston, with the guidebook to the house in her hand, as if ready to take a visitor round. Mrs Garnett must have been considered a fairly important member of the household to have had her portrait painted. The presence of the guidebook in the picture hints at the already well-established practice of respectable sightseers being allowed entry to country houses. By all accounts Mrs Garnett was rather good at this ‘public-facing’ part of her job.

Caesars' Hall, the everyday ground-floor entrance hall at Kedleston Hall. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Caesars’ Hall, the everyday ground-floor entrance hall at Kedleston Hall. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Several appreciative descriptions of Mrs Garnett’s performance as a house guide have been preserved, but the most glowing and informative was one by James Plumptre who visited in 1793:

‘We entered the house at the Servant’s Hall, by a door under the Portico, put down our names, and were then shewn up into the Grand Hall, where the Housekeeper joined us. Of all the Housekeeper[s] I ever met with at a Noblemans Houses [sic], this was the most obliging and intelligent I ever saw. There was a pleasing civility in her manner which was very ingratiating, she seem’d to take a delight in her business, was willing to answer any questions which were ask’d her, and was studious to shew the best lights for viewing the pictures and setting off the furniture.’

Part of the Marble Hall at Kedleston Hall. ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Part of the Marble Hall at Kedleston Hall. ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

So not just country house visiting and country house guidebooks, but also visitor reviews were already clearly in evidence in the eighteenth century.

4 Responses to “‘A delight in her business’”

  1. Gésbi Says:

    How very interesting! It’s nice to have the portrait and the reviews that attest to Mrs Mary Garnett’s character.

  2. Lady Smatter Says:

    I wonder if Mrs. Garnett had any hand in composing the guidebook? A version from 1758 has been digitized and is available at archive.org (https://archive.org/stream/catalogueofpictu00scar), but this picture probably shows the later 1769 edition.

  3. trewinbBruce Trewin Says:

    Reminiscent of the housekeeper at Pemberley.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Lady Smatter, I don’t think that it is know who originally wrote it.

    Bruce, yes that is exactly the same scenario of respectable visitors being taken round by the housekeeper – Austen cleverly using the premise that normally the visitors taken round by the housekeeper were strangers to the family, which in Elizabeth Bennet’s case was clearly not so.

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