Interview with curator Kathleen Palmer

Our curator, Kathleen Palmer, outlines what visitors can expect from the exhibition and what it means for the Museum.

What is the exhibition about?
Ladies of Quality & Distinction will bring together portraits of the 21 aristocratic women who signed Thomas Coram’s first petition for a Royal Charter to establish a Foundling Hospital. Although this petition to King George II was not successful, the support of these women was absolutely essential in lending respectability to an initiative which some felt could encourage promiscuity and illegitimacy. The exhibition will explore their stories, looking at what might have motivated their support, and what influence they may have brought to bear on the men in their families. Many of the male nobility who went on to sign the Royal Charter were related to these compassionate, forward-thinking women. Alongside this, the Museum will also present stories of the female staff and supporters, also ‘ladies of quality and distinction’, who went on to play a hugely important role in the running of the Foundling Hospital.
 

Why does the Museum want to put this show on now?
This year we celebrate the centenary of female suffrage and the 50th anniversary of the women’s strike at Dagenham. It seems appropriate for the Foundling Museum to bring to the forefront the role of women in bringing about social change since the beginning of our story in the 1720s.
 

Why have these women been hidden from the Foundling Hospital’s story?
Despite the 21 Ladies’ support, they held no official roles at the Hospital. This reflects the value and status of women at the time, which in turn affected the representation of women in our painting collection. The first portrait of a named woman, Caroline Collingwood, wife of an 18th-century secretary of the Foundling Hospital, entered the collection in 1868.

It was not until the early 20th century that women first became governors. The first portrait of a female governor, Beatrice Forbes, was added to the Collection in 1944. The Museum has presented women, not only the Ladies, but the mothers of the foundling children, the foster mothers and wet nurses, matrons, laundresses and other female staff, as part of the essential story of the Hospital, but this is the first time we have attempted to celebrate these first supporters in such an ambitious and visible way in the Museum.
 

What can we expect to see from the paintings that will go on display?
In our research, we have sought out portraits which show the Ladies at their approximate age on signing Coram’s petition. One thing which is striking is the youth of many of them. Where possible we have chosen formal portraits in robes of state, showing the women as powerful and grand as the male portraits they are temporarily replacing. In some cases, we are using the only portrait we have been able to track down.

Some of the portraits seem to tell a story about the home lives and marriages of the Ladies – one we hope to borrow shows half of a particularly well-matched and happy couple, another a sadly neglected and rejected wife.
 

Do any of the women’s stories stand out?
Charlotte, Duchess of Somerset, the first to sign Coram’s petition, was probably around the age of 18 and expecting her second child to her much older husband. This was his second marriage after being widowed, and he was in his 60s. Perhaps her experience as a young mother influenced her decision to support Thomas Coram. Charlotte came from a very large family with, we think, twelve sisters and five brothers, most of whom lived to adulthood. Her family would have been pleased with such an advantageous marriage, having so many daughters.

Ann, the Duchess of Bolton, was rejected by her husband soon after their marriage and they lived apart. At the time she signed Coram’s petition, he had just fallen for the actress Lavinia Fenton, star of theatrical smash hit The Beggar’s Opera, who became his second wife on Ann’s death in 1751. Fascinatingly, Ann signed at almost the same time as Henrietta, Dowager Duchess of Bolton, her husband’s stepmother, and it seems possible that they remained in touch and may have influenced one another to sign.

Thank you to everybody that has supported our campaign so far. With your help, we can put our first female champions back in the picture.   

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