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A woman scorned

Emily Mary Osborne 1834-after 1934

Although not a well-known artist, Emily Mary Osborn was one of a number of professional women artists in Victorian London who took up the theme of oppressed womanhood, specialising in the depiction of young women in distress.

Emily Mary Osborn's 'The Governess' is more than a snapshot of private family life. It offers a window on to the Victorians' divided society, writes Anne French

In this Victorian satire, members of a vulgar bourgeois family terrorise their gentle and ladylike governess. Her four young charges, who have evidently reported her to their mother, look on petulantly, or in mischievous glee, as she is berated for some supposed fault. With her simple black gown and proud, composed demeanour, the accused governess is entirely the innocent party, silhouetted against white curtains that symbolise purity. In contrast, her crass, fashionably dressed employer - perhaps the wife of a nouveau riche industrialist or merchant - is the embodiment of an ill-judging parent with more money than sense, who indulges her children's every whim and accepts unhesitatingly their account of this dispute.

The contrast between the two women confirms the governess's superiority in everything but money and position. The composition is divided into two unequal vertical bands: on the left, the governess's simple black dress and upright pose is juxtaposed to the gaudy colours and clutter to the right, where the family's united attack on its forbearing employee is expressed in the serpentine line which links mother and children.

While the allegation appears to relate to the elder boy, who clings tearfully to his mother, the sly expression of his older sister suggests a deliberate plot to discredit their governess. The younger boy, lounging beside a lapdog - a symbol of the family's pampered lifestyle - points at the governess in accusation. And while the reaction of his younger sister, cradling her doll, is hidden, the exaggerated bow and lace trimmings of her dress confirm her inclusion in this spoilt family unit.

Victorian interiors were typically ornate, but Emily Mary Osborn uses the flamboyant decor to create an effect of ostentatious opulence - in the ormolu-mounted, veneered French bureau, the Jacobean-style chairs, floral carpet, marble mantelpiece, vase and fringed curtains.

The costumes, the markedly garish colours, the flounces and lace of the girls' dresses - these are all similarly elaborate, while the children's exaggerated coiffeurs contrast with the governess's simply braided hair.

Despite the inclusion of an elaborately framed ceremonial portrait, used here to stress the family's pretensions to gentility, this is clearly a middle-class - not an aristocratic - interior, with belongings crammed indiscriminately into a relatively small space.

The governess may stand apart from this rampant materialism, but she is not solely a victim. The proud, controlled demeanour with which she faces her accusers suggests that she has the character to withstand this attack on her virtue, even if it results in dismissal.

At first sight, this small-scale painting appears almost like a photograph, with its clarity of colours and frozen dramatic action. Yet the sketchy handling, with the brushwork visible throughout, offers a contrast to the more "finished" appearance that was more usual in this period.

Social and historical background

The 1830s and 1840s were a period of major social upheaval, during which reformers, such as the Earl of Shaftesbury, sought to introduce legislation to protect working people. The number of domestic servants increased dramatically in line with the rise of the middle classes, and their treatment became a topical issue. The arbitrary differences between rich and poor, expressed cogently in this painting, also began to exercise writers, perhaps most notably Charles Dickens. Artists began to portray the servant as a victim of employers and of society as a whole. The sufferings of governesses became a particular point of interest. The genteel, well-educated but poor governess, forced by circumstance to work for an uncongenial employer, became a major theme in English art and literature in the 1840s and 1850s, when it was a mark of social prestige to employ one.

Although not servants as such, governesses occupied an uncomfortable, socially ambiguous position between "upstairs" and "downstairs" - often accepted by neither - their learning ignored and frequently even despised by employers. Less well paid than a good cook, but expected to be ladylike in her dress and accomplishments, the governess, dependent and often friendless, was required to prepare girls for marriage - for which no great intellectual accomplishments were considered necessary, or indeed desirable.

Charlotte Bront 's classic Jane Eyre and her sister Anne's Agnes Grey, both published in 1847, were based on their unhappy personal experiences of this role. Interestingly, the first major study of the governess in paint - Richard Redgrave's popular and acclaimed The Governess (1844) - predates the Bront s' novels. According to Redgrave's daughter, his painting was specifically intended to "fight for the oppressed".

Sixteen years later, Emily Mary Osborn painted this more satirical variant on the same theme of loneliness and drudgery. A contemporary review of her painting in the Art Journal recognised it as a "bitter satire on a too prevalent vice - the practice of treating educated women as if they were menial servants".

Emily Mary Osborn's painting confirms the barriers of caste in the society it portrays - particularly in education, where the advantage is entirely on the governess's side. In this case, an unbridgeable gulf has been created between employer and employee through the powerful and poignant expression of this isolated governess.

Further reading

Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servants' Portraits by Giles Waterfield and Anne French (National Portrait Gallery). The Victorian Governess by Kathryn Hughes (Hambledon amp;London).Tyrant or Victim? A History of the British Governess by Alice Renton (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, out of print).Images of Victorian Womanhood in English Art by Susan Casteras (Farleigh Dickinson University Press).This painting is included in the exhibition Below Stairs, 400 Years of Servants' Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London until January 11 2004, and then at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh from February 11 to May 31 2004

Anne French is a freelance art historian and curator

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