These two inspirational women were cousins who worked together to form the first all-female design and decorating company in Britain and were tireless campaigners for women’s suffrage.
Agnes (1835-1945) was born in Suffolk to a large and wealthy merchant family that encouraged the education of women. Two of her sisters were also pioneers and campaigners for women’s rights. Her sister Millicent went on to lead the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and Elizabeth was the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor. Her cousin Rhoda (1841-1882) was the daughter of an impoverished Derbyshire vicar. Rhoda worked as a governess, the only occupation open to ‘genteel’ women, to help support her siblings. This was for a short time however, as Rhoda was desperate to become an architect but was unable to find an architectural practice willing to take on a ‘lady pupil’. Rhoda was determined and joined forces with Agnes, who was keen to escape domestic duties in Suffolk, and in 1971 together they were apprenticed first to Daniel Cottier and then into the practice of J. M. Brydon. They worked under Brydon for 18 months and then carried out a tour of the country to visit and sketch interiors and furniture.
In 1875 they set up their own business ‘A & R Garett House Decorators’ from their home at 2 Gower Street, Bloomsbury. In their book Suggestions for House Decoration (1876) they explained they were keen to live amongst houses “which were built in the solid and unpretentious style so much in accordance with best characteristics of the English people”. The house is now owned by the University of London, and their frieze and ceiling of the first-floor back room are still in place – a design of sensitively painted portraits of poets around a pattern of flowers.
Both Agnes and Rhoda had very successful careers, winning many high-profile commissions in public and private buildings. Sadly very few examples of their work survive today, though some of the furniture they made for James and Margaret Beale’s house in Holland Park is now in their home at Standen in Sussex, a house designed by Philip Webb. One of their earliest commissions was the Kensington home of the composer Hubert Parry and the most comprehensive descriptions of their work are found in Parry’s diaries. Rhoda was a founding member of the SPAB and encouragingly Parry notes the attention they paid to drains as well as decorations. He describes their house in Gower Street: “to live there is a very great deal of happiness in itself. The quiet and soothing colour of the walls and decoration and the admirable taste of all things acts upon the mind in the most comforting manner.”
In the 1870s Agnes and Rhoda did several women’s suffrage speaking tours together and were committed members of the cause. Rhoda argued to an audience at the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in 1876 that “the woman’s sphere and woman’s mission is one of the most important problems of the present day, but here, at least, in the decoration and beautifying of the house, no one will dispute their right to work. If a woman would rightly undertake this work and would study to understand the principles upon which… it is based, they would not only thereby increase their own happiness, but in thus extending the gracious influence of the home, they would help to raise the position of household art, and thus render a real service to the nation.”
Agnes specialised in the design of chimney pieces of panelling – perhaps the closest a ‘decorator’ could be to architect – and one of her designs survives in what was her sister Elizabeth’s New Hospital for Women installed in 1890. Only one example of their wallpapers was photographed and from this ‘Garrett Laburnum’ was recreated in the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery, a museum which incorporates some of the women’s hospital on the Euston Road. Some of their carpets and wallpapers are known to have been made by women, presumably part of an informal network of patronage between early women-only firms.
Rhoda died of typhoid in 1882 and is buried in Rustington, Sussex where the cousins rented a cottage with the composer Ethel Smyth. Agnes once said “Rhoda has had more pain in her life than was good for her”. Rhoda’s obituarist in the Englishwoman’s Review wrote: “Many delicate harmonies and beautiful forms adapted to house-hold comfort are due to her taste and talents. If this useful and congenial pursuit is in future open to women, it is due in large measure to her courage and enterprise.”
Agnes was a director of the Ladies Resident Chambers Company when it was formed in 1888 which built safe and comfortable accommodation for working women in London on Chenies Street, near Tottenham Court Road. After Rhoda’s death Agnes continued their business and her widowed sister Millicent moved into their house – the reason for the blue plaque outside the building today.
Images: Agnes and Rhoda Garrett; Garrett Corner, showing their recreated wallpaper design at the Elizabeth Anderson Garrett Gallery. For more information about the Garretts, please visit womanandhersphere.com