As Downton Abbey wraps its last season and fans bid farewell to the exquisite life of Britain’s post-Victorian upper crust, we take a look at the gritty flip side of what service was really like in this world of maids and footmen.
Photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten’s project “In Service” takes a look behind the walls of the privileged class in the years leading up to World War I, exposing the exploitation and abuse endured by the impoverished staff running wealthy British households. Servants’ livelihoods depended on the whims of their employers, making them vulnerable to abuse, be it disciplinary or sexual in nature. “In Service” recreates these unseemlier moments of servitude in stunning detail, and in doing so, paints a very different unromanticized image of Great Britain at the time.
What makes Julia’s project so exceptional is her commitment to authenticity, researching true accounts and stories, unearthing accurate costumes, digging up accounts of real events, and even tracking down three 18th-century estates for her setting.
The photos themselves are as beautiful as they are emotionally powerful. Julia really knows what she’s doing and these shots land you right in the middle of Britain’s class dynamics of a century ago, bringing you face-to-face with these loaded intimate moments.
Read our interview with Julia below to find out more.
How did you become interested in Edwardian-era Britain?
At the time I was looking for a punchy new project. I had also watched some episodes of the period dramas being shown on TV. I became more aware of the dramatic changes in British society that had taken place after the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, starting with Edward’s ascent to the throne in 1901, ending with the start of WWI in 1914, and what has happened in the meantime.
What was it about the servant class that specifically captured your attention?
The “golden age,” as it was called, was very much restricted to higher society and not to the poorer people in the UK, those who became servants. The population of the entire UK at the time was less than 40 million, say about 10 million were women capable of working, of which over 1,000,000 were “in service.” Next to working in factories and on the land, it was one of the few means of surviving poverty at the time. Mostly young girls went into service and were easy prey for predators among the richer male employers.
Were you able to uncover many personal anecdotes or stories from servants in this era that influenced you?
There are quite a number of autobiographies and historical books written of that period that give a good insight into the experiences of those in service… However, the one story that appealed to me most was that of the wet-nurse, especially the contrast with Queen Victoria, who, despite having nine children, didn’t nurse a single one of them.
How did you direct your models throughout the shoot, and what was it like working with them?
I plan a shoot very thoroughly, including interviewing the models beforehand. Hence I knew them and they knew me. I also had a chance to brief them ahead of time as to what I expected of them. I have a stylist with whom I have many conversations prior to the shoot and a make-up assistant to assist on the day, so that on the day of the shoot everything runs smoothly.
In addition, I had personally visited the location, sourced the props, etc., and setting up the lighting and scenarios was quite straightforward. All this planning and preparation enabled me to concentrate on directing the models into the various scenes that I had thought up. Hence… everything went smoothly.
What’s your take on Downton Abbey’s portrayal of servitude?
I was only able to watch a few episodes of Downton Abbey… I feel that there was a bit too much concentration on the “sugary” aspects of the era. “In Service” concentrates more on the behind-the-scenes seamier events that took place. Our family lived in the USA for a number of years when “Upstairs, Downstairs” was being shown. I preferred that series as it concentrated more on the servants’ lives. I took more notice of the content of “Upstairs, Downstairs” and what I subsequently learned from my research.
Do you feel like this project has anything important to say about our modern world as well?
The suffragette movement started its militant campaign for the vote in 1903 in frustration with the lack of progress. After WWI women were partially enfranchised, and then in 1928 the franchise was given to women over 21 years of age. Step forward to now; after the publication of the Kinsey report, introduction of the pill, and years of feminist activity, women are now more empowered than ever before and can decide over their own sexuality. A very marked difference, I’d say.
As you saw, photography can knock us off our chairs and expose hard truths. Do you use your photography to shine a light on ignored realities? Share your work on PicsArt with the hashtag #PhotoTruths to show us your point of view.