Review: Ladies of Quality & Distinction, Foundling Museum

This exhibition at the Foundling Museum is closing on 20 January 2019. WSG member Miriam al Jamil recently visited and reviews it here.

Ladies of Quality & Distinction, Foundling Museum, London, WC1N 1AZ
Free with cost of entry, until Sunday 20th January, 2019.

The signatures of twenty-one ‘ladies of quality and distinction’ on Thomas Coram’s petition to George II in 1735 was a brave and benevolent gesture of support for Coram’s determined efforts to establish the Foundling Hospital. It took four more years before a Royal Charter was finally granted, but mention of the ladies was by that time excluded. Coram’s project picked uncomfortably at the scabs which covered the moral duplicity at the heart of one of society’s greatest ills, that of the plight of mainly poor women, faced with a stark choice when they found themselves pregnant and abandoned. One of the objections levelled against Coram’s project was that it risked becoming a convenience for the wealthy men who fathered illegitimate babies, so the support offered by Coram’s ‘ladies of quality’ defiantly claimed the moral high ground as an act of female collective compassion.

This exhibition follows on from last Autumn’s display which focused on the desperate deed of child murder, and explores the ways in which women of different classes were involved in giving life and succour instead. The efforts made in recent years at the museum to recover the lives of the mothers who brought their babies to the Hospital are now matched by this impressive gathering of portraits in the Picture Gallery, drawn from country houses, galleries and private collections to propose a collective identity for the women who gave their support. The paintings vary in size and quality and several are shown as good photographic copies, evidence of the effort required to assemble and connect these women. One of the most interesting paintings is shown in a reproduction. It depicts Juliana, Duchess of Leeds with a group of Ladies and Maids of Honour in Greenwich Parkby Charles Phillips 1730, (private collection).  The women talk informally in the park setting in a manner normally reserved for male groups, a point made in the catalogue. Enclaves of male privilege represented in homosocial group portraits are familiar in works by William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds and Johann Zoffany but it was rare that women would be celebrated together in a painted space other than in a family conversation piece. The painting exemplifies shared female experience and interests beyond familial bonds which the arrangement of paintings in the Picture Gallery together represent with difficulty. The stylistic disparities between the paintings necessitate a non-art historical reading and highlight instead the unity of purpose the women shared, when other aspects of their lives kept them apart.

The different fortunes and trials of the women in the upstairs Picture Gallery are mirrored by the women in the display downstairs and it becomes clear that the death of vulnerable babies impacted on the lives of all classes of women. The oil paintings of signatories are supplemented by the documents on show downstairs which offer glimpses of the lives of inspectors, wet nurses, matrons, domestic staff and a few inmates who spent their lives in the hospital due to disability, many of whom are named. These ledgers and letters reveal the logistical complexities posed by managing the network of people involved in the care of the children. Intriguingly, as an alternative to the more usual satirical characterisation of slovenly eighteenth-century wet nurses and foster carers, we see the example of wet nurse ‘Mrs. Crook’ desperate to keep her charge in 1768, ‘for any price rather than part with her’, but unable to offer the required apprenticeship to do so. We also find a nurse who was infected, probably by syphilis, by the baby she cared for. Some of the objects displayed centre inevitably on feeding children: a ‘pap boat’ for early solid food, a plate, cup and utensil set for use by Foundling children and a watercolour View of the Girls’ Dining Room, 1773 by John Sanders (1750-1824) which shows the girls being served and supervised. Photographs supplement the early documents to give a glimpse of Foundling staff and children into the twentieth century. These include the memorable image of a cook at the Foundling Hospital premises when it was at Berkhamsted in the 1940s concentrating on her task as she tackles a joint of meat with her carving knife, sleeves rolled and hair frizzy from the heat of the kitchen.

The exhibition title directs our attention at the paintings of aristocratic women and perhaps does not prepare us for the less prestigious array of items mainly selected from the Foundling archives. These separate elements complement each other to celebrate the shared efforts of so many women to ensure that the helpless babies entering the Foundling had a chance at life they would otherwise be denied.

MIRIAM  AL JAMIL

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