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

Review: Love’s Victory, Penshurst Place

In August WSG member and PhD student at Birkbeck College Miriam al Jamil went to the ‘premiere’ of Lady Mary Wroth’s Love’s Victory at Penshurst Place, Kent. She reviews it here:

Inspired by a WSG notice, I obtained a last-minute ticket for the first ever professional performance of Love’s Victory (MS transcription here) which was staged in the beautiful medieval Baron’s Hall at Penshurst Place in Kent. Penshurst was the home of Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651/3) whose prose romance Urania and sonnets are better known than this pastoral tragi-comedy, written between 1617 and 1619.  It exists in only two manuscript copies, an incomplete Huntingdon MS and a Penshurst version on which the performance was based. The project to revive the play has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of Lancaster University’s Shakespeare and his Sisters project which Professor Alison Findlay has been running for two years, and a film of the performance will shortly be posted on their website. It will be a valuable resource and interesting I am sure for many WSG members.

The gallery of the hall served as Venus’s heavenly domain, from which she and Cupid observe the entangled trysts of four pairs of lovers, echoing aspects of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Venus demands that her power is respected and the complex web of the lovers’ desires and misunderstandings is formed and untangled through rhyming couplets, in song and music. The lovers devise word games and singing competitions to while away the time. Each represents aspects of love, its fickleness and calculation, vulnerability and yearning. The dilemma of an arranged marriage makes all true love secondary, an offence to Venus which results in the tragic death pact of the true lovers Musella and Philisses in her Temple. The Penshurst MS provides the denouement of the plot which is missing in the Huntingdon version. Musella’s mother is brought in and rebuked for making a forced marriage arrangement which has led to the death of her daughter. Her shame and grief convince Venus to reverse the tragic ending and restore the lovers to life again. So we all celebrate the joyful triumph of love. How could it be otherwise?

The language, arguments for love in all its aspects and guises framed in a pastoral setting was suitable entertainment for Wroth’s private audience in her country house. It reflects traditions of courtly masque entertainments and aristocratic participation. Professor Findlay suggests it may have brought Wroth together with her cousin William Herbert if they both performed in the play. Certainly Mary entered into a relationship with William after her husband died. The final scene lays the blame for miserable marriages squarely on the mother and it is tempting to read Mary’s personal story through the twists and turns of the plot. The performers gave energy and insight to their roles, and the evening was an encouraging contribution to the ongoing rediscoveries of women’s skill and creativity to which we all subscribe at WSG. Interested readers may want to order the forthcoming edition of Love’s Victory edited by Findlay and Michael Brennan once it is available on the Manchester University Press website.

Review: Sampled Lives exhibition, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Sampled Lives: Samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum
Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RB
Free entry, until Sunday 8th April, 2018.

Accompanying catalogue: Carol Humphrey, Sampled Lives: Samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum. Accomplishment, Identity, Education and Employment (Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum, 2017). Pp 242, illustrated.  £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 9781910731079.

Sophia Ellis, Band sampler with pictorial panels, 1785 (exhibition catalogue No. 62). Image courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Curated by the Honorary Keeper of Textiles, Carol Humphrey, this is a fascinating small exhibition of 123 samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection which are not usually on general display. Dating from the early 17th to the 20th century they are attractive in their own right as material objects and a testament to the expertise and artistry of their often very young (under ten years old in some cases) female makers. Most of those makers are anonymous, destined perhaps to be known only by the initials or name they stitched into their pieces. In a few cases, especially where that name is unusual, a short life has been reconstructed from the archive, though even here the sampler is pretty much the only surviving evidence of a female life. What the exhibition does very successfully is take this evidence and use it in a fresh way: as the equivalent of a life-writing text to illuminate the under-recorded lives of girls and women. This is therefore a very helpful extension of sources not just for scholars of textiles but for all members of the Women’s Studies Group who research women’s lives.

The samplers have been arranged not only chronologically but also in groups that illustrate the themes of accomplishment, identity, education and employment which are more fully explored in the sumptuous fully-illustrated catalogue. Most of the makers are, as far as can be discovered, of gentry or middling-sort families. Their work is a testament to the embroidery skills that were a key element in a female identity, used to make and embellish clothing and household linens. Some of the later examples are interpreted, however, as portable CVs demonstrating a working woman’s employable skill with the needle. Similarities between samplers are pointed out and traced not only to printed pattern books and popular texts but also to female networks such as the pupils of teachers Judith Hayle and her daughter Rebecca Thomson of Ipswich (fl. 1691-1711), late-17th- and 18th-century Quaker circles, and the charity school of St Clement Dane’s in central London.

The technically elaborate earlier 17th-centry spot motif samplers gradually gave way to the simpler (in stitching terms) pictorial samplers with alphabet and text often intended to be framed and hung on the wall of the family home, maybe as a dutiful gift to parents. The former had included clues to a girl’s or her family’s political alignments (heraldic and royalist symbols for example), whereas the latter can be thought of as extending this to a more personal interpretation of a girl’s emerging female identity and sense of self. For example, nine-year-old Sophia Ellis’ 1785 sampler (see illustration) incorporates standard motifs (as the ‘Solomon’s Porch’ in the centre, Adam and Eve in the band below, and the urns of flowers and geometrical trees) alongside symbols of loyalty at a time of war in America (the two grenadiers and the crowned lions). She has demonstrated her ability to both read and write, now expected in gentry and middling-sort females, with her top bands of upper- and lower-case alphabets and a moral motto which is again typical in framing a female sense of piety and quiet obedience. However, in the bottom band has allowed her imagination to run riot with a charming series of more frisky pastoral images.

GILLIAN WILLIAMSON