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

WSG Outing 2018: NPG Heinz Archive and Library

This year our summer trip was organised by WSG member Miriam al Jamil and we went to the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Archive and Library, where staff had organised a sumptuous display of prints and other material all related to gender and women’s studies in the early modern period and long eighteenth century.  WSG member Susan Schonfield went along and here reports on the day:

Twelve WSG members and friends visited the Archive and Library where the Curator of the Gallery’s Reference Collection, Paul Cox, had put out material for us to view. As an example, he had been asked by Miriam al Jamil, who had organised the visit, to show what the archive and Gallery held on the Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810). Several prints and a copy of the one oil portrait (on loan to a Berlin museum) gave an indication of the wealth of material available to researchers and students.

Images of the Chevalier D’Eon at the NPG

Paul gave a short talk on the life of the Chevalier. He included explanations of the different print techniques used, e.g. stipple and intaglio, and mentioned the various sources of the prints, including contemporary scandal sheets. The Chevalier had been a soldier, diplomat and spy for Louis XV, and was famously a cross-dresser, living from 1786 as a woman. To complement D’Eon’s story, Paul had also looked out what the archive held on Hannah Snell (1723-92), a woman who had passed for a man to serve as a soldier and sailor; one print portrait of Snell was probably taken from a real-life sitting, and certainly her resourceful character was evident. After the talk, we had time to look more closely at the individual prints and ask questions.

Our second speaker was Carys Lewis, an Archivist at the collection, who spoke about the acquisition of portraits of women, as well as work by women artists. The first Annual Report of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), founded in 1856, was in 1858 and listed 57 portraits acquired, five of which were of women. Carys also took us through some of the problems of provenance and previous incorrect attributions; some of the prints shown to us still had not had their sitter identified. We were also privileged to see the first Director of the Gallery, George Scharf’s sketchbook, with his own drawings of copies of prints and his notes on the colours of the works he’d sketched. The archive holds a collection of the 17thC artist Mary Beale, together with her husband’s diary, where he affectionately records what she was working on. Again, after the talk, we had the opportunity to look at the prints more closely, gently handle the sketchbook, and ask questions.

The Archive is open for study by members of the public Tuesdays to Thursdays, from 10.00am to 5.00pm, by appointment. The staff are most helpful and friendly. This is a real treasure trove, and several members of the group expressed the intention of returning for a visit to help them with their research.

After final questions and thanks, we went round the corner to an Italian restaurant for lunch, a pleasant social occasion.

Thanks Susan, for writing this report.  And thanks too, to Paul and Carys of the NPG for organising the visit. Captivated by this post? Support the NPG’s work by becoming a member of the gallery. Want to learn more about the history of gender? Join the WSG.

For further reading:
Judith M Bennett, Shannon McSheffrey, ‘Early, Erotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London‘, History Workshop Journal (2014), 1-25.

David Cressy, ‘Gender Trouble and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England‘, Journal of British Studies 35 (1996), 438-465.

Miqqi Alicia Gilbert, ‘Cross-dresser‘, Transgender Studies Quarterly 1 (2014), 65-67.

Gary Kates, ‘The Transgendered World of the Chevalier/Chevalière D’Eon‘, Journal of Modern History 67 (1995), 558-594.

Mark Stoyle, ‘‘Give mee a Souldier’s Coat’: Female Cross-Dressing during the English Civil War‘, History 103 (2018), 5-26.

WSG Workshop 2017 ‘The Fruitful Body’ report

Karen Hearn (UCL) giving her keynote at the WSG workshop 2017 (Image courtesy Sara Read)

The Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 annual workshop took place at the Foundling Museum on 6 May, with the theme this year of “The fruitful body: gender and image”, keynote speaker Karen Hearn speaking in the morning on ‘Women, agency and fertility in early modern British portraits’, and presentations relating to the theme from participants and discussion in the afternoon. The following report contains references to pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility and bereavement, which some readers may find distressing.

After tea and coffee conference organizer Miriam al Jamil introduced the keynote. Karen is a former Curator of 16th and 17thC British Art at Tate and is currently Honorary Professor at UCL. At Tate she curated several major exhibitions and is now planning a project on early modern representations of pregnancy for early 2019. Karen gave a wide-ranging and fascinating talk focusing on painted portraits of elite British women. She suggested the difficulties of researching these images, as few sources such as diaries or account books that might explain the intention behind and reception of these portraits survive, and the portraits themselves are constructs, the product of decisions as to what to include as well as what to leave out, and thus can be misleading. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot by looking closely and critically at these images.

Early modern elite men and women commissioned portraits for a variety of reasons and life events, and genres such as the marital portrait and maternity portrait are well known, argued Karen, but the pregnancy portrait is less studied.[1] It was popular during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period and Karen showed workshop participants a number of images by artists such as Marcus Gheeraerts II and Hans Eworth. Eworth painted a portrait of Mildred Cooke Cecil, Lady Burghley pregnant with what would turn out to be her son Robert in 1563, which is now in Hatfield House. Cecil had miscarried several times prior to this successful pregnancy, by contemporary standards she was an older mother and the portrait represented the continued hopes of the family that she would produce a male heir.[2]

Themes of loss and gain ran throughout Karen’s talk. Pregnancy was a risky time for early modern women and its representation would be freighted with fears of miscarriage or death, but also hope for or in celebration of a successful birth. These portraits therefore suggest interesting questions and interpretive challenges as to time – when were such portraits began, late in pregnancy when it was likely a woman would carry to term, or earlier? When were they ended, before or after the birth? Did some paintings end up as memento mori, if the mother died? And since women were pregnant so often, were pregnancies actually routinely erased in the process of representation?

Afternoon discussion at WSG workshop 2017 (Image courtesy Sara Read)

Lunch was followed in the afternoon by participants’ 5-minute presentations and discussion (for images and comments from the day, see the twitter hashtag #wsg2017). The chair Felicity Roberts had organized speakers into broadly chronological and thematic groups of three, and in the first Jennifer Evans discussed early modern aphrodisiacs, followed by Sara Read on diagnosing early modern pregnancy and Carolyn Williams on seventeenth-century pregnancy cravings or ‘Pica’. Carolyn described how women who claimed cravings for exotic fruit were suspected of exaggerating this desire, exploiting the special status that being pregnant brought in what might be termed an early modern “power play”.

In the second group of presentations, Helen Draper described the 17thC professional portrait painter Mary Beale’s art practices, and detailed how a portrait of her cousin-in-law Alice Beale by the artist Peter Lely, was finished after her death by having other female family members sit as model instead. Sara Ayres discussed the gendered portrayal of elbows in early modern royal portraits, while Rosemary Keep looked at the prevalence of maternity, where the mother is shown with her children, over paternity portraits. These presentations provoked questions concerning the ir/replaceability of women subjects.

Following this, Rebecca Whiteley looked at early modern anatomical images of the gravid uterus, which functioned “analogically”, depicting the uterus as ripe fruit. Helen Hackett described early modern male poets’ use of pregnancy metaphors to describe the labour of literary invention, while Helen Hopkins discussed some uses of maternity in Shakespeare’s plays. Clearly there were rich resonances between visual and literary metaphors of early modern pregnancy.

Just before the break, Jasmine Losasso discussed the representation of female homicides in 1630s broadsides, noting the way their bodies were still described as maternal, thus making their crimes seem more monstrous.

Gillian Williamson looked at images of landladies in the mid-18thC, including a lurid print of a real life case in which a landlady was murdered by her lodger, an artist, after a disagreement about… her portrait, which he had undertaken. Yvonne Noble described the 1730s actress Anne Oldfield’s directions for her burial clothes, arguably her last great performance.

After a break for tea and coffee, Annette Rubery discussed a print of the actress Peg Woffington closely modelled on earlier images of Nell Gwyn. Charlotte Keighron considered the eighteenth-century gentlewoman Sarah Hurst, her diaries and emotional relationships to clothes she wore and made, while Louise Duckling looked at the choices the late eighteenth-century poets Charlotte Smith and Helen Maria Williams made concerning their public images. This group of presentations suggested how the comparative availability of resources for studying 18thC portraiture and material culture gives the researcher greater scope for determining the relative agency of women in shaping their own reputations, representations and identity.

Next Carol Stewart discussed Henry Fielding’s Amelia and the presence of men during childbirth in the eighteenth century, while Angela Escott described the actress Sarah Siddons’ maternal roles and her use of her own son as her fictional child on the stage. Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou looked at William Blake’s representation of the soul as a female figure.

In the last group of presentations, Georgina White discussed the establishment of the Society for Lying In Women in the early nineteenth century, while Moira Taylor looked at women’s efforts to provide inheritances for female relatives during the same period. Finally, Joanna Crosby brought the workshop to a close with a storming presentation on Victorian paintings and the role of apples in gendering images of women as fallen, including this one by the artist Augustus Egg, where the woman seems to reach out of the frame towards the viewer. It had been a whistle-stop tour of women, gender, portraiture and identity from the early modern through to the mid-Victorian period, but many fruitful connections were made.

[1] For a famous example of an early modern woman’s commission of her own portrait, see Karen Hearn, ‘Lady Anne Clifford’s “Great Triptych”‘, in Karen Hearn and Lynn Hulse (eds), Lady Anne Clifford: Culture, Patronage and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Britain (Leeds, 2009), 1-24.

[2] For further information see Karen Hearn, ‘A fatal fertility? Elizabethan and Jacobean pregnancy portraits’, Costume 34 (2000), 39-43.

WSG Workshop 2017 the fruitful body: registration open

The fruitful body: gender and image

Keynote Speaker: Karen Hearn, UCL
“Women, agency and fertility in early modern British portraits”

Unknown artist, Portrait of a woman, probably Catherine Carey Lady Knollys, 1562, Oil on panel, 108.6 x 79.4 cm, Image courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Unknown artist, Portrait of a woman, probably Catherine Carey Lady Knollys, 1562, Oil on panel, 108.6 x 79.4 cm, Image courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Early modern painted portraits are constructs. They result from a series of choices – what to include, what to exclude – made to suit specific contexts and purposes. Karen’s paper will consider 16th and early 17thC British portraits of women, addressing the types of information they offer to present-day users/viewers.

Date: 6 May 2017

Time: 11am-4.30pm (registration from 10.30)

Venue: Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ

Cost (inc lunch & refreshments): £18 (WSG members), £15 (students/unwaged), £22 (non-WSG members)

The workshop is now fully booked, but to join the waiting list please email the address given in the registration form

All attendees should bring a 5-minute presentation, from any discipline and any period covered by the Group, exploring the workshop theme. Topics might include:

* caricature * texts * novels * conduct manuals * medicine *philosophy *motherhood * women artists

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For readers who would like to publicise the event, please download the WSG Workshop 2017 poster and the WSG Workshop Registration 2017 form.

For further information, see the annual workshop page.

Reminder: WSG January seminar 2017

WSG’s next seminar takes place in just over a week, with papers on seventeenth-century sequestration, Mary Beale’s portraiture, and imagining the future in the (very long) eighteenth century.

Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30. Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.

Saturday 21st January, 2017. Chair: Lois Chaber
Charlotte Young: “Our Wives you find at Goldsmiths Hall”: Women and sequestration during the English Civil War.
Helen Draper: Mary Beale and the Performance of Friendship.
Mascha Hansen: Beyond Marriage: Envisioning the Future in Women’s Writings, 1660-1830.