The independent art historian and curator Giles Waterfield died on 5th November of an unexpected heart attack. He was Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery between 1979 and 1996, an associate lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, acted as advisor to numerous museum and heritage organisations, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, and was co-director for the Attingham Trust from 1995-2003, as well as the founding director of Royal Collection Studies there in 1996.
One of the more honest obituaries in a wealth of very matter of fact ones comes from The Art Newspaper in which Waterfield is described as both erudite and amusing. I never shook hands with the man, but did meet him in October 2012 at the Attingham Trust conference. He spoke passionately about the country house and its many histories and I remember thinking he had a great smiling presence in the room which merrily balanced the flamboyant manner of Julian Fellowes who also attended.
2012 was the peak of popular interest in the social history of the country house where Downton Abbey was running to nearly 12 million viewers for its 3rd and 4th series. This was also the 60th anniversary of the Attingham Trust and there appeared to be a flicker of interest in every aspect of the country house, not just its architecture and fine art collections.
In many respects this was due to those like Waterfield who sought to highlight the eras in which these houses were built and the contemporary moral codes of behaviour imposed on their inhabitants. Attempts to define the servant hierarchy and the spaces which acted as identifiers of work rather than entertainment were also gaining greater impetus for research.
Giles Waterfield aided the promotion of such research through publication and curation. Most relevant here is the exhibition and its accompanying publication written and edited by Waterfield and Anne French Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servant Portraits which ran from October 2003 to January 2004 at The National Portrait Gallery in London. With a series of lectures connected to the exhibition, Waterfield would demonstrate his specialist interest in the representation of servants in English literature from the early 19th century onwards.
Dare I admit and quite cowardly in hindsight, but I wrote a review of his Markham Thorpe (2006) a couple of years ago for this blog. I was a harsh critic and I deleted it several months later when I was knew I would meet Waterfield and hoped to promote my own research at that time. In the blog post I recall suggesting how detailed and perhaps a little contrived his backdrops were – an easy task given who he rubbed shoulders with – adding that his characters were stereotypes and his female protagonist was too sweet! However, the accompanying publication for the Below Stairs exhibition is obviously not fiction but a scholarly approach to a collection of images which need consideration without prejudice.
Much of my own research since the date of the exhibition has looked into the status of servants from the late 17th century and so my own knowledge is fairly extensive. Nonetheless, that the publication is an accompaniment to an exhibition does not hold it back or allow for patchy source material. It is instead a well written piece and on the one hand appears to bring the subject matter up-to-date whilst on the other it offers a stimulating and unique take on a subject often severely lacking in images.
As often seems the case, I was unable to get to the exhibition at the time as I had just started a new job, but I did have the book delivered instead. It covers most ground and includes the essential study of servant portraits from Bramham Park, Yorkshire and Erdigg, Wales as well as those stand alone images like that of Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants (above) by William Hogarth (c.1750-55) or Robert Shaw, Keeper of the Forest of Bowland by James Northcote (c.1806) which have evolved from mere contemporary representation of real people to objects that for the viewer should raise questions about the character and lifestyle of the sitters. French and Waterfield discuss this in light of the servant and master relationship and the production of servant portraiture as a symbol of loyalty and extended family.
Other themes covered by Waterfield particularly include servants working in institutions, life in service, and black and Indian servants. The latter illustrating some of the finer portraits of the 18th and 19th centuries including Ignatius Sancho (above) by Thomas Gainsborough (1768) and The Munshi Abdul Karim by Rudolph Swoboda (1888).
The images are obviously central to the book and this is not a cheap general publication about servants illustrated with unrelated pictures of maids or gardeners. It is analytical and puts the images in context and wherever possible provides contemporary commentary of the sitter and/or painter/photographer. Servants are the backbone of country house social history and kept these sites running daily. Their status and their numbers were disadvantages which limited their representation so this publication is essential in allowing us to visualise the servant workspace, their daily tasks and study their features in order to try and see something more of the person rather than a job role. Equally so, Hogarth’s representation of six of his servants allows the viewer to hear them speak as it is almost possible to match their faces to the tone of voice or how they may have expressed themselves with the smallest of gestures.
In order to push this to a more general reader, it takes someone like Waterfield to suggest this notion and there was incredible devotion in the work he undertook. My lasting impression of Waterfield from the Attingham Trust conference four years ago was of someone rather unassuming. There were many big voices wanting to talk about their research or pat themselves on the back for their project leadership skills at such-and-such institution. Waterfield was able to navigate through this by simultaneously showing direct interest delivered with a wry smile. People gravitated to him and wanted to know his thoughts on developments in country house interpretation and preservation, and he knew exactly who was connected to which trust, funding body or academic department.
I’m sure there will be a gap left behind as Giles Waterfield was a character essential to the modern day study of heritage. As funding narrows and dismantles the enthusiasm many have for history and heritage sites we desperately need individuals like him who can operate underneath this and motivate and collaborate in order to challenge any normalisation of weak interpretation and cultural obscurity for many places.
From Apollo Magazine http://www.apollo-magazine.com/tribute-giles-waterfield/
From The Times http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/giles-waterfield-68wg3tzq6
Art Forum https://www.artforum.com/news/id=64555
Home page with full list of exhibitions and publications http://www.gileswaterfield.com/
And to end, something a little more lighthearted: When Lucy Worsley and Giles Waterfield met http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/giles-waterfield-lucy-worsley-i-gave-a-talk-about-a-woman-who-went-mad-in-the-tower-he-told-me-it-10316533.html