Albert Rutherston

Laundry Girls


Albert Rutherston 1881–1953
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 915 × 1170 mm
Presented by Humbert Wolfe 1939

Display caption

Albert Rutherston was the younger brother of the artist William Rothenstein and collector Charles Rutherston. Albert and Charles changed their surname from Rothenstein to Rutherston in 1914, at the beginning of the First World War. Albert Rutherston was trained at the Slade and began painting in a realistic style. He liked to choose subjects from daily life. These two laundry girls are marking linen to distinguish the items for return to owners. The models actually sold fruit and vegetables from a stall and had also sat for the painter Walter Sickert.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry



Albert Rutherston never became a member of the Camden Town Group, but his friendship with some of the main protagonists and his early involvement with the Fitzroy Street circle make him a noteworthy figure in the history of the group’s development. During his lifetime, he was best known as an illustrator and theatre designer. In a published discussion on painting in 1933, Stanley Casson labelled Rutherston’s characteristic illustrations as ‘thoroughly decadent young creatures with pale blue skins and curly legs prancing about among trees that never existed in landscapes that seem to shake like mirages’.1 Rutherston agreed with this colourful description of his work but rejoined that he had once been ‘a painter of solemn and serious pictures, who painted costermongers, laundry girls, seamstresses, and the like – and very glad I am that I did’.2
Laundry Girls is one of these earlier oil paintings which took as their subject working class women engaged in domestic labour, and it was through such works that Rutherston appeared to align himself for a time with the subject matter of Walter Sickert and other members of the Fitzroy Street Group. The series also included Laundry Girl (whereabouts unknown), exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1907, of which the critic in the Observer wrote, ‘The “Laundry Girl” by Mr A Rothenstein concentrates within one little frame every conceivable kind of ugliness’,3 and Standing Laundress 1909 (private collection),4 which was one of Rutherston’s last paintings in this vein. In 1910 a significant shift occurred in Rutherston’s work and he abandoned his ‘solemn’ method of painting in favour of the imaginative style described by Casson and evident in Tate’s Paddling (Tate N04569).
Laundry Girls depicts two young women in an interior, one seated on a stool and one kneeling on the floor, with a basket full of what looks like tablecloths between them. There are other fabrics such as curtains and a fringed cloth hanging on a drying line, with a wooden screen-fold clothes horse behind them, and another basket of laundry sitting in the left-hand corner of the picture. The girls are dressed in plain and functional skirts and blouses with neckcloths, and the figure on the right also wears an apron. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the laundry of a middle class household would either have been done at home, usually carried out by domestic servants or a laundress hired to come in for the day,5 or it would have been sent out to a commercial laundry or a local washerwoman, usually a working class woman trying to earn some money from home.6 It is not clear from Rutherston’s painting whether the two girls are meant to be domestic servants engaged in doing the laundry for a private household, or laundresses hired from outside to deal with the washing. A reviewer in the Aberdeen Free Press described the work as ‘a brilliant though rather ugly picture of young Jewesses in a laundry’,7 although there is no further information to corroborate this supposition which was perhaps based on no more evidence than the artist’s name.8 The painting was first exhibited at the New English Art Club under the title The Linen Markers, which suggests that the girls are engaged in marking items from the household’s washing with needle and cotton thread so it can be sent to an outside professional laundry. A small mark sewn onto each item would have distinguished the washing from others and ensured its return to the correct house.


Subject and inspiration


Nicola Moorby
November 2003


Stanley Casson (ed.), Artists at Work, London 1933, p.93.
Observer, 26 May 1907, Tate Archive TGA 7310/22.
Reproduced in Max Rutherston, Albert Rutherston, London 1988, pl.8.
Judith Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed, London 2003, p.118.
Elizabeth Roberts, A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women 1890–1940, Oxford and New York 1984, p.140.
Aberdeen Free Press, 16 June 1906, Tate Archive TGA 7310/20.
Rutherston changed his name from Rothenstein in 1916.
Flanders 2003, p.122.
Margaret Cuthbert Rankin, The Art and Practice of Laundry Work for Students and Teachers, London 1905, p.29.
N.E. Mann, Instructions in Elementary Laundry Work for Use in Schools and Technical Classes, Liverpool 1904.
Rankin 1905, p.29.
Flanders 2003, pp.122–3.
M. Rutherston 1988, p.3.
Emile Zola, L’Assommoir, trans. Maureen Mauldon, Oxford and New York 1995, pp.139–40.
Eunice Lipton, Looking into Degas: Uneasy Images of Women and Modern Life, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London 1986, p.122.
Ibid., p.127.
Reproduced in Denys Sutton, Degas: Life and Work, New York 1986, pl.194.
Speaker, 23 June 1906 and Jewish Chronicle, 22 June 1906, Tate Archive TGA 7310/20.
Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.257.
Both reproduced in Bruce Arnold, Orpen: Mirror to an Age, London 1981, p.200.
Humbert Wolfe, Portraits by Inference, London 1934, pp.23–4.
Albert Rutherston, ‘From Orpen and Gore to the Camden Town Group’, Burlington Magazine, vol.83, no.485, August 1943, p.202.
Albert Rutherston, letter to John Rothenstein, 30 November 1941, Tate Archive TGA 8726/4/11.
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands and Nan Hudson, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.36.
Reproduced in William Rothenstein Memorial Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1950, pl.3.
Philip Bagguley, Harlequin in Whitehall: A Life of Humbert Wolfe, Poet & Civil Servant 1885–1940, London 1997, pp.85–6.
Morning Post, 20 July 1906, Tate Archive TGA 7310/20.
Albert Rutherston, biographical form returned to Tate Gallery, 21 April 1932, Tate Catalogue file.
Tate Acquisition file, TG 4/2/914/1.
Humbert Wolfe, The Upward Anguish, London 1938, p.104.

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