An intimate souvenir

I often marvel at the strange range of objects that have, against the odds, managed to survive down the years since Ellen Willmott’s death, when so many ‘important’ pieces have been lost.

Even the humblest survivors can speak, however, and often reveal some intriguing things. One of the oddest possessions that has actually lasted may tell us a rather unexpected story. A story that seems to go against received Wilmott ‘legend’, clinging by its bristles to the back of a hairbrush…

I guess a lot of people would say ‘yuck’ at the idea of saving someone else’s hairbrush. Yuck! Does it still have hair in it? Yuck! where’s it been? Yuuuk!

Image (c) Sandra Lawrence

Frankly, I’ve got used to grubbiness – I long ago lost the yuck factor when dealing with Ellen Willmott’s stuff. I squish those silverfish, brush away those beetles, let the spiders scuttle back to safety, just wear gloves against the rust and masks against the spores. Ninety year-old hair holds no fear for me – and there’s precious little of it left anyway. That hairbrush is perfectly clean (which in some ways is a bit of a shame).

Image (c) Sandra Lawrence

In fact I’m least jazzed about – and most yucked about – what it’s made of. Ivory is, of course, banned in all forms now. This hairbrush couldn’t be sold even if there was any desire to do so. Which is right and good, not least because we can’t afford to lose any more evidence.

Obviously ivory is Bad; no way do I condone it now, but we are dealing with the past, which everyone knows is a Different Country, where They do things differently. We can’t bring back that elephant; we must at least learn from what the object can tell us, on top of the fact that ivory must never happen again.

Image (c) Sandra Lawrence

From the distinctive monogram on the back, the object was clearly made for Ellen Ann Willmott of Warley Place. There’s no maker’s name on it, but I’ll make a stab at it being early 20th century. The sheer amount of use the brush has seen tells us it has been used for many years. It is unlikely such a personal item would have been run through anyone else’s locks, so we can be pretty sure it was Ellen’s.

Image (c) Sandra Lawrence

It is relatively plain – obviously not by the standards of today; few of us habitually get everything we own monogrammed – but in comparison with similar items from earlier in her life, such as…

…the brushes in the picture below:

(c)The Berkeley Family Archive and Spetchley Gardens Trust. Photograph: Sandra Lawrence

These have been far less well used. They are from Ellen’s travelling dressing case, from around 1894. I’ll do a separate post about that sometime, as the whole case is very much worth delving into. The earlier brushes appear to have been made from horn or, more likely, tortoiseshell (sorry, either more yuck or double-yuck…). Everything in the case has the same, swirly silver monogram, so I’m pretty sure our ivory brush, with its more angular device, is not from the travel trunk.

What I find most interesting about this item, however, is its provenance. It was found, many years ago, at the home of James Riches Robinson, Willmott’s butler of over forty years. By the end of her life, Ellen’s vast staff, both garden and household, had reduced to two main retainers: Head Gardener Jacob Maurer, and Robinson in the house. She occasionally had the odd housekeeper or cook but they came and went.

Robinson basically did everything for her – when Queen Mary came to visit Warley in the late 1920s and a button fell off her coat, Robinson was the only person in the house who knew how to sew it back on.

Image (c) Sandra Lawrence

Now, Ellen is, by many accounts, supposed to have been a bit of a nightmare to live with in her later years, and especially dictatorial to her staff. Yet after her death, Robinson chose to keep this extremely intimate item to remember her by.

Robinson retained a couple of other items, which I’ll talk about in later posts, but this one intrigues me. Surely, if he had had such a hideous time with Ellen, he wouldn’t have saved anything so very personal. Unlike some other objects he snaffled away, he almost certainly wouldn’t have intended to use it and I can’t think his wife Mary would have thanked him if he’d given her a second-hand hairbrush.

Image (c) Sandra Lawrence

I can only conclude from this that his grief when Ellen passed was genuine. Robinson was granted Red House, his home in the village, for life, but this object does not say forelock-tugging ‘gratitude’ to me. It speaks of love, however strange, of an ancient retainer for a frankly-cussed-at-times employer.

And no, I have not used it myself. Yuck.

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