WSG visit, Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media

WSG visit to the Foundling Museum exhibition, 15th February 2020

Tour and talk by curator Karen Hearn

Report by Miriam Al Jamil

Curator Karen Hearn treated a group of WSG members to a tour of her stunning exhibition at the Foundling Museum. Her interest in the subject of ‘pregnancy portraits’ began twenty years ago when she curated a small display at Tate Britain on the painter Marcus Gheeraerts II which included his Portrait of an Unknown Lady c.1595, a recent acquisition by the Tate depicting a woman who was clearly pregnant. But it is now, Karen suggested, that the subject has really ‘found its moment’ and the current exhibition is generating a huge amount of interest. Though Karen’s area of research centres on the Early Modern, the exhibition explores portraits from the Tudor period through to current social media images. Led by the availability of material and the strict parameters she set herself, Karen has assembled a range of portraits which can reasonably be read as showing an expectant woman, whether coinciding with a portrait commission, the reason for the commission itself or a fact cleverly concealed from the viewer. We saw examples of all these; stories told through paintings, drawings, prints, books and photographs as well as through fascinating objects, dress, needlework and sculpture. The sheer range of media on show and the interaction between objects, each with an important narrative to contribute albeit within the modest space available is a triumph of skill and professional expertise.

We began our tour on the ground floor of the museum, with William Hogarth’s 1750 painting The March of the Guards to Finchley, in which a ballad-seller clings to her soldier lover, her hand on her ‘bump’, the prominent ‘rising of her apron’ as evidence of her condition. Fear and dismay often attended the unwanted pregnancies which prompted the Foundling’s original mission, but Portraying Pregnancy is concerned with depictions of the inevitable and frequently dangerous condition which defined usually married women’s lives until relatively recently and the genuine fear of death which haunted the anticipated birth. So-called ‘Mother’s Legacy’ texts were poignant letters to an unborn child in case of such an outcome, and the slim manuscript and subsequently published version written by Elizabeth Jocscelin (1622) is on show. Sadly, she did not survive, as was the case for several other women who Karen introduced to us.

Beginning with representations of The Visitation from New Testament sources, we notice again the hand on the bump, a gesture which becomes a sign in many of the oil paintings, for example in the magnificent Unknown Lady in Red (Marcus Gheeraeets II, 1620) and Lady Verney (Anthony van Dyck, late 1630’s). The delicate drawing of Cecily Heron, daughter of Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein II (c.1527) details the knotted ties which join her expanded stays. Cecily appears again in a reproduction of the sketch used by Holbein for a large family portrait which shows her delicate hand on her bump.

Self-portraits by women artists are an important feature of the exhibition. WSG members may remember seeing and discussing Mary Beale’s Self-portrait with Husband and Eldest Son (1659-60) at our visit to the Geffrye Museum a few years ago. The artist sits on the left, traditionally associated with the male side of a husband and wife portrait, and holds a mantle up to her chest. This may conceal her pregnancy, since her second son was born in 1660. Karen has included the pregnancy stays and matching stomacher, probably made for the daughter-in-law of lady Verney and displayed close to her portrait. We noticed it was well worn. How many of her pregnancies had happy outcomes? Plate one of William Hunter’s grim and familiar print, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774) is nearby to remind us of one sadly anonymous woman’s fate – anatomised along with her unborn child. Among the final exhibits is the front cover of Vanity Fair (August 2017) featuring a heavily pregnant Serena Williams. Karen pointed out that the complications Serena suffered after the birth of her daughter would probably have led to her death in a previous century and this highlights the ever-present hazards of pregnancy and serves to connect the variety of images in the exhibition which this brief report has only touched upon.

A beautiful catalogue accompanies the exhibition. It includes extra examples and discussion, Karen’s work on the subject which has been twenty years in the making!

The Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media will run until 26th April 2020.


Karen is involved in other events associated with the exhibition which members might find of interest:

She is giving a lecture on Elizabethan-period pregnancy portraits, especially that of Mildred Cecil, c.1563, at the National Portrait Gallery at lunchtime on 16 April:

She is also speaking about portraits of Mildred Cecil at the conference on 21 April, to be held at The Garden Museum in London, to mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of her husband William Cecil, Lord Burghley:

Finally, on 22 April, The Foundling Museum is holding a study day relating to the Portraying Pregnancy show. The speakers will predominantly be covering Early Modern subject matter:

Featured images:

WSG visit to Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media (15th February 2020).
Alongside it is an Ivory anatomical model of a pregnant female with removable internal organs, on a cloth-covered wooden couch with ivory pillow, available from:

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.


The Foundling’s Ladies of Quality appeal

21 Ladies of Quality and Distinction

WSG’s host institution, the Foundling Museum, has just launched an appeal to raise funds for its autumn exhibition, Ladies of Quality and Distinction. In 1739 Thomas Coram received his Royal Charter from the King to set up the Foundling Hospital, which took in vulnerable babies at risk of abandonment.  He was helped by a group of women who supported his cause.

In the Foundling’s own words, “We want to shine a light on the 21 forward thinking Georgian women – the eponymous Ladies – whose support helped Coram realise his dream of establishing the Foundling Hospital”.  The museum has from now until 5 March – exactly a month – to raise £20,000 to reunite these women’s portraits, currently scattered around the UK, to hang in its Picture Gallery, which is usually full of the portraits of the original male governors.

WSG would be grateful if its readers could contribute to the appeal.  If the total is not reached, the Foundling receives nothing – so no matter how small the donation, every little helps. There are various rewards, including tote bags, exhibition tickets, prints, and a private tour of the exhibition. You can also follow the progress of the appeal via the twitter hashtag #ladiesofquality.

Just think, 21 important women for 2018, the 100th anniversary of the Act which gave votes to some women over the age of 30 for the first time  – please help!

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.


Foundling Museum Basic Instincts Exhibition

Forget about the title of this exhibition, because the idea behind it is actually great.  Curated by Jacqueline Riding, the Foundling Museum, London has a new exhibition exploring attitudes to love, desire and female “respectability” in the Georgian period through the paintings of the artist Joseph Highmore (1692-1780).  Highmore was a successful painter whose art underwent a profound change thanks to his involvement with the new Foundling Hospital in the 1740s.  Highmore’s work with the Foundling and his new paintings started a debate about women’s vulnerability to sexual assault and the Foundling’s exhibition is the first major assessment of Highmore’s work for many years.

The exhibition runs until 7 Jan 2018, and there are several events around the exhibition that might be of interest to WSG blog readers. There is a talk on 21 October by Hallie Rubenhold on Georgian courtesans and prostitutes, and a symposium on 20 November, which will also feature a tour of the exhibition.  For further information and to find out how to get to the Foundling, see its website.