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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.


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