According to Virginia Woolf, "On or around December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered or a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that, but a change there was, nevertheless … All human relations have shifted — those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910”
Woolf’s essay was about the contemporary novel, but her chosen date was that of the first Post-Impressionist art show held in London, symbolically taken to signal the advent of Modernism in all the arts.The Edwardian years 1900-1914 are often regarded as the moribund phase of Victorian stuffiness, class-bound, patriarchal, priggish, antiquated; when in fact as the early parts of Downton Abbey indicated, it was a period of social and political upheaval and cultural excitement, in art, literature, music, dance.
On Friday 15 February, critic Alastair Sooke and myself will lead a free tour of the Victorian, Edwardian and early 20th century rooms in the National Portrait Gallery to explore how these changes affected portraiture.
Although there are not many portraits of servants in the NPG collection, especially in respect of sun and air, it does reflect the transformation that Woolf evoked through the figure of
"a homely illustration, in the character of one’s cook. The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. Do you ask for more solemn instances of the power of the human race to change?"