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Garrett, Agnes (1845–1935), interior designer and suffragist, was born on 12 July 1845 at The Uplands, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, the seventh of eleven children of , merchant, and his wife, Louisa (1813–1903), daughter of John Dunnell of Marylebone, Middlesex. She was educated at a boarding-school in Blackheath, near London.

The Garrett family played a pivotal role in the development of women's rights in Britain: Agnes, with her cousin Rhoda, established the first interior design business run by women and thereby contributed to the opening up of the professions to women; Agnes's older sister was the first British woman to qualify as a doctor; and her younger sister was president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies from its foundation in 1897 until 1918 when the vote was secured for women.

Rhoda Garrett (1841–1882) was born on 28 March 1841 at Elton in Derbyshire, the daughter of the Revd John Fisher Garrett and his first wife, Elizabeth Henry Pillcock. Her father married again, and his second wife was said to have ‘practically turned her predecessor's children out of the house to fend for themselves’ (Smyth, 7). Rhoda had a ‘terrible struggle’ to support herself and her younger brothers and sisters, and was ‘dogged by ill-health as well as poverty’ (ibid.). Rhoda's younger half-brother was , an associate of Cecil Rhodes.

Rhoda Garrett went to London in 1867 intending to train as an architect, an intention shared by Agnes. As this was not a profession considered suitable for women, it took several years before they found an architect prepared to take them on as clerks. Eventually, in 1871, J. M. Brydon, who was later to design the new women's hospital in Euston Road, London, for Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, employed them as apprentices for eighteen months.

This training was followed by a walking tour around England, visiting and sketching old buildings and interiors, after which the Garretts set up their own interior decorating business, designing furniture, chimney-pieces, and wallpapers in the Queen Anne style and aiming at middle-class people with moderate incomes. Among their commissions were the new women's university colleges and in 1874 they advised on the furnishings of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's new home in 4 Upper Berkeley Street. These were among a number of projects that established them as leaders in their field.

The composer Ethel Smyth became friends with the two designers, whom she described in her memoirs, Impressions that Remained (1919). Smyth recalled ‘The beauty of the relation between the cousins’, and the sanctuary they gave to ‘waifs and strays of art’ in their home at 2 Gower Street, London. However, it was with Rhoda that Ethel Smyth formed a particular bond:
How shall one describe that magic personality of hers, at once elusive and clear-cut, shy and audacious?—a dark cloud with a burning heart—something that smoulders in repose and bursts into flame at a touch … though the most alive, amusing, and amused of people, to me at least the sombre background was always there—perhaps because the shell was obviously too frail for the spirit. (Smyth, 7)
The work of Agnes and Rhoda Garrett was considered as influential as that of Morris & Co. in spreading new and artistic ideas of taste in the home from the 1870s. In 1876 they published Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture, one of the Art at Home series published by Macmillan and edited by the journalist W. J. Loftie. Enormously successful, the book had gone into six editions by 1879. In 1878 the Garretts exhibited furniture and a cottage room at the Universal Exhibition in Paris and ten years later Agnes designed a complete interior consisting of carpets, furniture, metalwork, wallpaper, and woodwork for the first exhibition of the new Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Alongside this work they also ran a school of interior decoration. In addition to their Gower Street house they rented an old thatched cottage at Rustington in Sussex. A friend later recalled their ‘art-y clothes’ (Smyth, 54). Rhoda was a member of the Royal Archaeological Institute, and also served on the committee of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings.

The Garretts were not only the best-known women designers and decorators of the period, but they also campaigned actively for women's rights. They were both active in the London National Society for Women's Suffrage set up in 1867. They spoke regularly at meetings in support of the cause of women's rights and Rhoda was considered to be one of the most effective of the early suffrage speakers. In 1871 they both joined the central committee of the National Society for Women's Suffrage when it was set up to campaign both for women's suffrage and for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, and Agnes for a time was one of its honorary secretaries.

Neither Agnes nor Rhoda married and they shared a house together until Rhoda's early death from typhoid fever and bronchitis on 22 November 1882 at 2 Gower Street, London. Her death certificate was, fittingly, signed by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson; she was buried in the churchyard at Rustington. Agnes continued with the interior decorating business; after the death of her husband, Harry Fawcett, Millicent moved in to share the Gower Street house. Agnes died on 19 March 1935 at 2 Gower Street, London, having outlived all of her siblings.

Serena Kelly

Sources  

D. Rubinstein, A different world for women: the life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1991) · J. Manton, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1965) · I. Anscombe, Woman's touch: women in design from 1860 to the present day (1984) · J. Attfield and P. Kirkham, eds., A view from the interior: feminism, women and design (1989) · A. Callen, Angel in the studio: women in the arts and crafts movement, 1870–1914 (1979) · M. D. Conway, Travels in South Kensington, with notes on decorative art and architecture in England (1882) · R. Garrett and A. Garrett, Suggestions for house decoration in painting, woodwork and furniture (1876) · Boase, Mod. Eng. biog. · L. Collis, Impetuous heart: the story of Ethel Smyth (1984) · E. Smyth, Impressions that remained, 2 vols. (1919) · E. T. Cook, Edmund Garrett: a memoir (1909) · Englishwoman's Review, 13 (1882), 547–8 [Rhoda Garrett]

Likenesses  

photograph, 1865 (with Millicent Fawcett), repro. in R. Strachey, The cause: a short history of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (1978) · photograph, 1872 (Rhoda Garrett), ILN Picture Library; repro. in Callen, Angel in the studio · photograph (Rhoda Garrett, with her younger sister), repro. in Smyth, Impressions that remained, vol. 2, p. 55

Wealth at death  

£25,163 17s. 5d.: probate, 27 May 1935, CGPLA Eng. & Wales