When a journalist from the Women’s Penny Paper interviewed the women’s suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett in 1890, she was impressed by the décor of her London home. “Artistic and tasteful as the room was, comfort was evidently a primary consideration,” she wrote. “The drapery, which was so pleasant to the eye, served to keep off possible draughts; the seats were low and easy, the floor was warm and soft with bright-colored rugs, and above all one felt able to move about without the risk of upsetting some valuable ornament.”
Comfort, ease, and warmth were rare qualities in the overwrought interiors of late 19th-century British homes, as was being spared the embarrassment of accidentally damaging your hosts’ knickknacks. Fawcett’s rooms were exceptions, having been designed in an elegant, utilitarian style by her sister Agnes Garrett, with whom she shared an 18th-century town house in Bloomsbury. Agnes ran a business from there, A & R Garrett House Decorators, one of the first all-female interior design firms in Britain or anywhere else.
Agnes and their cousin Rhoda Garrett (the R in the company’s name) had co-founded the business in 1874 and worked together until the latter died of typhoid in 1882. Thanks to their design work and a successful book, Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture (1876), the Garretts were among the best-known interior designers of the era. They were also prominent women’s suffrage campaigners, which did not endear them to their fustier male competitors. One rival designer, Lewis F. Day, dismissed their exhibition at the 1878 Paris world’s fair as proof of “how little is enough to satisfy the ambition of lady-decorators.”
Not that his critique was their first professional setback. Like the few other women who broke into male-dominated professions at the time, the Garretts could only do so thanks to family money, in their case to the financial support of Agnes’s father, a wealthy corn merchant and maltster. Agnes shared her good fortune with Rhoda, the daughter of an impecunious clergyman. Even so, they struggled to persuade an architect to take them on as apprentices. Eventually, John McKean Brydon agreed to do so on condition that they had nothing to do with the dirty, unladylike construction process.
After their apprenticeships, the cousins set up in business, helped by commissions from family and friends. Among them were Agnes and Millicent’s sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify in medicine in Britain, and the composer Hubert Parry, who had stayed with the cousins in Bloomsbury and recalled “the admirable taste of all things” there.
At a time when fashionable British interiors were fussy, gaudy, and stuffed with fancy ornaments, the Garretts’ gently purposeful style struck an appealing contrast to sophisticated clients like Parry. He also appreciated the rigor with which they tackled practical matters, noting approvingly in his diary that they had paid as much attention to the drains as to decorative details. The same mix of aesthetic restraint and pragmatism is evident in their book Suggestions for House Decoration, which includes useful tips, like saving money on wallpaper as it would need to be replaced as quickly regardless of its cost, and stylistic advice on how to create “solid and unpretentious” interiors.
The book introduced the Garretts’ views to a wider audience than their cultured clientele, as did their speaking tours to champion votes for women. When Rhoda died, Agnes considered closing the business, but was persuaded to continue. Eventually she fused her political and professional interests by working on the interior of the New Hospital for Women, founded by Elizabeth, and helping to provide sorely needed housing for single women in London as a founding director of the Ladies’ Residential Chambers company.
Agnes continued to run A & R Garrett House Decorators until she retired in 1905 to dedicate her time to the suffrage cause. By then, the Royal Institute of British Architects had (reluctantly) admitted its first female members and eight “lady house decorators” were listed in the London phone directory.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton.