18 December 2018

Women's domestic labour, in Edwardian art

Frances Vida Lahey (1882-1968) studied painting at the Brisbane Technical College. In her early 20s (1905–09), she travelled south to Melbourne and studied at the National Gallery School with Bernard Hall. It was conventional training for a young Australian artist in the Edwardian era. And like everyone else, Vida Lahey travelled to Europe in 1915 where she spent four years, studying art in Paris at the Académie Colarossi and doing her bit during WW1. But her stay in Paris came after the painting I want to discuss.

Lahey, Monday Morning, 1912, 
153 x 123cm, 
Queensland Art Gallery

The Queensland Art Gallery says that the painting Monday Morning 1912 launched Vida Lahey's career when it was exhibited at the annual exhibition of the Queensland Art Society in Brisbane, in 1912. Monday Morning was apparently following the tradition established at the National Gallery of Victoria School in Melbourne, where students were encouraged to produce a large narrative painting to compete for the triennial travelling art scholarship.

Esme, Vida’s younger sister, was the model for the woman at the wash tub. She worked alongside Flora Campbell, a family friend, doing the washing at the Lahey family home in Indooroopilly in Brisbane. The painting depicted the women doing the weekly wash with copper tubs and bar soap ― once a common sight in Australian households. But if it was such a common sight, why was it a rare subject in Australian art? Why were women's lives generally depicted in art in a more genteel fashion and how was it that their hard labour in and around the house disappeared from public discussion?

My assumption is that male artists were at work during the day and never saw laundry being done. As far as they were concerned, the laundry washed and dried itself, ironed itself and miraculously entered itself into the linen cupboard. Was it hard labour? Any viewer of this painting could see the relentless steam and the heavy, wet loads, but only Queenslanders would have recognised the unbearable sub-tropical heat and humidity.

World War One changed everything for Vida Lahey (and everyone else). Though there is a suggestion that in England she was romantically involved with a friend of one of her brothers who was subsequently killed in action, there is no evidence to suggest that Vida ever considered marriage. Back in Australia, Lahey maintained her strong commitment to painting as a professional career.

This painting was a fine work by the artist and remains her only surviving large-scale work. What can we compare it to?  Not C17th Dutch interiors where that the women were well dressed, elegant and totally removed from the day to day grime of running a household. Dutch servants helped the mistress of the house but were not labouring in the paintings. 17th century Dutch paintings idealised the domestic sphere and saw it as a place for teaching the values of the Dutch Protestant Church - cleanliness, order, how to handle staff, how to model good behaviour for children, female virtue.  How different Lahey's Monday Morning was; less sentimental and more gritty.

Southern, The Old Bee Farm, 1900
69 × 112 cms

Southern, The Country Washhouse, c1905,
39 x 60 cm
private collection

If I had to compare Lahey's theme with that of other Australian artists, I would select Clara Southern (1860-1940). Southern's small works, The Old Bee Farm 1900 and The Country Washhouse c1905 depicted women at work in the bush landscape, not inside in a laundry shed. Southern specifically painted in a range of colours that hel­ped the models blend in, almost as a natural part of their rural landscape. Was it heavy work? Were the women lonely?

When South­ern first moved to War­r­an­d­yte, the country washhouse was a common sight, with the hot water boiled over an open fire & copper tubs full of clothes. It might not have been an epic national task, like shearing sheep, but it was a quiet and laborious task. And like her colleague & close friend Frederick McCubbin, Southern painted women at work inside the home eg The Kitchen 1912. By the time this tiny painting was painted, Southern was living in her beloved Warrandyte, on the rural fringes of pre-WW1 Melbourne.

Rutherston, The Laundry Girls, 1906
Oil, 92 x 117cm 

British artist Albert Rutherston’s early scenes of domestic life used sharply contrasting outlines to de­scribe the positions the young women worked in and the draped fabrics they dealt with. In Laundry Girls 1906, the Tate said the two women in this paint­ing were shown marking laundry with thread, before it was sent out to be clean­ed.  The laundry of a middle class Edwardian household would either have been done at home by young working-class domestic servants. Or it could be sorted by the servants and sent out to a local washerwoman. It showed none of Clara Southern's women working outside in the bush landscape, but at least the women in this painting laboured in company.

Orpen, The Wash House, 1905
Oil, 91 x 73 cm, 
National Gallery Ireland.

Irishman William Orpen met Lottie Stafford, the model for the main figure in this 1904 painting while she was working as a washerwoman in slum cottages in Chelsea. Lottie, the working class model, might have shown confidence and naturalness but I bet she was bored witless with the tasks. This painting, The Wash House, 1905 drew universal acclaim when exhibited in London in 1906 to middle class audiences.

I recommend you examine a painting by the Belgian artist Georges van Zevenberghen called La repasseuse, 1907. The ironing work was long and repetitive, but the view through the window to the cityscape outside was a delight. I will ask Art Contrarian which gallery has the painting now.


Deb said...

Didn't men do any of the heavy lifting around the home? Look how all the women's backs were bent over in their tasks.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, You have picked a subject that needs at least a doctoral dissertation to cover it, not just a blog post! To be fair to the mostly male artists, these genre paintings come in and out of style for their different types. We would also have to calculate how many male equivalents there are--village blacksmiths, men chopping wood, etc. I am more familiar with the type of old photographs known as occupationals, and while the men do outnumber the women, a fair number of women are represented, including some doing laundry. One consideration would be to measure the frequency of genres or occupationals by the amount of money the activity brought in--i.e., carpentering probably added more to the exchequer than did pie baking.

By coincidence, I just read about a statue of a woman at hard work. In a book of essays, E.V. Lucas told about the aged Ann Harrison of Bingham, who collected scraps for pig food in order to raise money for a WWI Roll Call memorial. I looked it up, and this impressive story checks out, complete with a photo of the statue of Ann at work with her bag of scraps:


Hels said...


I didn't see any images of Edwardian men labouring in their homes, but I must admit I didn't look for any. Perhaps artists thought they would never sell paintings of men elbow-deep in dirty laundry.

When my grandfathers got home from work each night, they were really tired. Their contribution to domestic tasks: mowing the lawn once a fortnight, taking the children to synagogue and school, and maintaining the household equipment.

Hels said...


You are right, of course. Men did horrible, dirty, backbreaking work - down mines, on ships, in cow sheds, in miserable factories. And men died younger than women, on average, often because of their dangerous work.

But men were visible... and paid, even if it was at a dismal level. Domestic labour, on the other hand, was largely invisible and unpaid.

Andrew said...

To my uneducated eye they all seem to be fine works and yes, labouring women are seldom made into works of art, although I note that at shorpy.com there are often 20th century photos of women, even coloured, as they pose while at their domestic labours.

Hels said...


thank you - I didn't know about Shorpy. Photos have two great advantages over paintings: 1. photographers can get into places and events that would not be readily available to painters and 2. the more modern medium (i.e photography) lends itself to more modern themes (eg feminism).

bazza said...

This is such an interesting topic. As Jim says, a doctoral study is in order. It's probably beeen done already!
I have always liked the domestic interiors of Vermeer (such as The Milkmaid) which are in this vein and those of Bonnard.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s floccinaucinihilipilificatious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


when I started lecturing in 1991, I wanted to focus my history and art history on the 17th and early 18th centuries .. Netherlands, Spain, France, Britain, Italy and Germany in particular. But the head of the department said the only thing that counted was "students' bums on seats". Thus I have focused on the 19th and early 20th centuries ever since.

But the domestic interiors of Vermeer, although very different from Lahey and Orpen, still fascinate us now.

Andy King said...

That is my great grandmother on the Orpen. Always great to see her on-line. They were not well off however my mum tells me that slum is not quite as they saw it

Hels said...


I wish I had a relative as the model in famous paintings. Look what two galleries wrote about your gorgeous great grandma.

"The model used for painting "Resting" was one of Orpen’s favourites, a young washerwoman called Lottie Stafford who lived in a decrepit street called Paradise Walk. The bored resignation of the young washerwoman, whose voluptuous beauty is unnoticed in the squalid setting of the steamy laundry, is reminiscent of the displaced young women who appear in Manet’s bars and music halls." Ulster Museum

In "Lotty and a Lady" 1906, George Lambert presented an everyday kitchen scene in which the Cockney housemaid living in the slum cottages of Paradise Walk in Chelsea. Lotty Stafford, is in command of her kitchen, looking out comfortably at the viewer. The lady, with head in profile and dressed for outdoors in hat and gloves, occupies the upper left of the scene. Neither mistress nor maid engage with the still life objects. They are lost in thought, posed as the still life. National Gallery Victoria

Lotty was a popular model on account of her naturalness, total self-assurance and subtle sensuality. She had a swan neck which greatly appealed to William Orpen, and which he emphasised in the series of works he painted around 1905 that deal with working-class themes. Lottie also posed for British artists William Nicholson and Walter Sickert. NGV

Unknown said...

Thanks Hels for your interesting reply. Lottie certainly appeared in paintings by accomplished artists of the time. But we know very little about how she was introduced to this scene. And in later years her modelling was apparently not mentioned within the family. Charlotte Annie Stafford (nee Macrow) was married to drayman John Cristopher Stafford. We know that John was gassed in Ww1 and needed to take an outdoor job changing from a carman to a drayman. John and Lottie had six children - the third being my grandmother Florence who was born in 1903. At this time the family were living at 2 Paradise Walk. They would later move to Collingwood Street and then 2 properties in Christchurch Street. So at the time of the Orpen painting above, Lottie would have been a married mother of three. It is a fascinating world in which Lottie lived with her presence maintained for posterity by such reknowned artists.
I will continue to read your blog with interest. Andy

Hels said...


It is interesting that John and Lottie's third of six babies, your grandmother, who was born in 1903. More or less the same time as the Orpen portrait was painted! So I want to raise two points:
1. For a young mother who has given birth three times already, and presumably not sleeping at nights because of the little ones, Lottie was still looking terrific.
2. What was a mother of a growing family doing heavy work in someone else's family? Who was doing the cooking, scrubbing and ironing at her place?

Andy King said...

Hi Hels. Interesting questions that made us think. It seems that once something is written it gets copied and re-used across the ages and across the internet. That seems to be the case here. With Paradise Walk being described as 'slum' and 'decrepit' - that is not how it is remembered by the following generations from Chelsea. We are also pretty sure that Lottie was not a washerwoman. But was posing for the pictures with Orpen in 1904. Take a look at the Nicholson from 1905 in which Lottie poses as an elegant and beautiful woman. Even the title is Mrs Stafford from Paradise Row. So realistically it is more likely that Lottie was a muse and model as well as a married lady with a growing family. And a very interesting family once you start to investigate. Thanks for the opportunity to recap this on your site. Andy