This book offers a broad chronological and geographical sweep of imagery that pertains to those in domestic service. From medieval illuminated manuscripts to early modern portraits, drawings and prints, as well as objects such as dolls houses and dummy boards, the focus is on Western European art (and sometimes its colonial reaches) that visualises those who labour for others: men, women and children, both servants and the enslaved.
Diane Wolfthal is upfront about what this book is not. It does not aim to offer a comprehensive history, nor a chronological narrative of societal change. It also omits as its principal focus key areas that have received scholarly attention elsewhere—namely, aristocratic portraits with attendant servants; Dutch 17th-century paintings in which servants provide moral lessons in virtue and vice; and images of servants of non-European descent.
Treading new ground
Instead, it investigates less well-known territory. Over five chapters, works that include unremarkable domestic workers—those who sweep, launder, change beds or toil in the kitchen—provide opportunities to examine servants’ lives, their status within households, and their relationships with masters or mistresses. A particular theme is the invisibility of servants—their presence in paintings, but in the margins and overlooked, their contribution erased.
The chapter in which servants buck the trend and take centre stage as the principal focus of portraits includes some of the book’s most compelling works: meticulous and intimate silverpoint drawings by Albrecht Dürer; informal red-chalk sketches of household maids by Charles Beale (son of English 17th-century portrait painter Mary Beale); and Diego Velázquez’s dignified portrait of his slave Juan de Pareja, painted a few months before the artist signed papers to make him legally free.
A necessary woman
It is always a joy to come across John Riley’s 1686 mock-heroic portrait of Bridget Holmes, James II’s nonagenarian “necessary woman”, who brandishes her long-handled brush as if it were a military baton, in a portrait that celebrates both her longevity and loyal service. These images rub shoulders with the medieval Book of Hours, 1570 Italian book illustrations showing kitchen scullions and knife-sharpeners, and carved stands in the form of kneeling, chained Black slaves—shocking objects that speak to wealth accrued via colonial office administration.
A particular theme is the invisibility of servants – in the margins and overlooked
The scope of the book is such that one person cannot be expert in all that it covers. It is no wonder therefore to come across errors of fact (for example, the date of Riley’s court office appointment, or Mary Beale’s Discourse on Friendship). To specialists in particular fields, some analyses of works may not sit quite true, and at times one could wish that more of the narrative concerning shifts in society that the book states not to offer was actually in it. It is, after all, the context in which to comprehend the altering dynamic between family and servants, from a relationship of binding mutual obligation to that of employer and waged employee.
Complexities of definition and categorisation are apparent, which the author fully acknowledges. The book foregrounds the working class, but not labour outside the house; it is about household servants, but the more lowly ones; it is about hierarchy, and those who serve the elite and privileged, yet the latter comes with a hierarchy too, from the wealthiest to the ordinary middle class, including artists themselves. At times one is conscious of being gently reprimanded—art historians for having overlooked the topic; employers for wishing to erase sight of their servants; and artists for marginalising them. However, even if one disagrees at times with some of the arguments and interpretation, analysing why is thought-provoking. The topic is an absorbing one and leaves the reader wanting to know more.
• Diane Wolfthal, Household Servants and Slaves: A Visual History, 1300-1700, Yale, 272pp, 170 colour illustrations, £35/$45 (hb), published UK 12 April and US 17 May
• Tabitha Barber is curator of British art 1500-1750 at Tate and was the lead curator and catalogue editor/contributor of British Baroque: Power and Illusion (Tate Britain 2020)