What is your role in the exhibition development?
I was delighted to be asked to assist with some research for this fascinating exhibition, seeing that Tate Britain (The Tate Gallery, as it was then) had a long association with this wonderful institution. Before the establishment of the Foundling Museum, the Tate Conservation Department kept a benign voluntary eye on the collection and in 1987-88 a major refurbishment enabled the then Foundling Hospital to lend most of its masterpieces to my ‘Manners & Morals: Hogarth and British Painting’ exhibition at the Tate. As a retired curator of 18th century pictures, and especially of the work of William Hogarth, the period covered by the ‘Ladies’ petition 1729-35 is of particular interest to me.
What was your starting point for the research?
The starting point for research on this subject is wonderfully precise: it a dated list containing the signatures of the 21 women in question who were the first to support Coram’s petition for a ‘hospital’ (meaning a care institution) for foundlings in London. As they were all members of the upper echelons of society, their circumstances and background is relatively easy to pinpoint. Much less accessible, in view of the low public profile of women at the time, are their views, character and intentions, or when and how they came into contact with Captain Thomas Coram.
How have the portraits been selected?
The really grand ladies, the Duchesses, the Countesses, the Queen’s Maids of Honour, came from families which had many residences, most of which would have been graced with the owners’ portraits. In this case it is a question of finding and selecting a portrait that is closest in time to the age at which the lady signed the petition. We are also interested in portraits which show the sitters as women of power, or at least of power as conferred upon them as wives or daughters of powerful men.
Have you had difficulty in tracking down any of the portraits?
Difficulties arise when the direct family line has died out, or has split into dozens of ramifications, where the family collections have been sold off or otherwise dispersed, sometimes long before photographic or descriptive records could be made. Even in well-maintained collections attributions and identifications can change over the years, and pictures can disappear from view and become untraceable even after quite recent sales, or identities can become questionable.
Have you uncovered any interesting stories along the way?
Any personality becomes interesting when fleshed out into something more than a name on the printed page. Putting a face to the name is the first step. One begins to sense life’s drama behind every one. It is quite moving to see how many of these seemingly rich and powerful women were in effect commodities, used to bring dowries, consolidate estates, cement family networks and of course to produce suitable heirs. There is something very poignant about scheming fathers arranging the marriages of teenagers, who do not get to meet each other until they come of age, or a young girl having to marry, as his third or fourth wife, a much older man whose previous wives had very often died in childbirth. Death was always very close even for the rich and powerful and few made it beyond eighty, like the remarkably charitable Selina, Countess of Huntingdon.
What has been your favourite part of the research?
It is always a pleasure to find a female portrait that goes beyond the bounds of formal robes or the virginal white shift. One of my favourites is the lusty Duchess of Manchester as the huntress Diana, equipped with weapons and hounds and wrapped in a leopard skin, ready to take on anyone – not a lady to be trifled with.
Finally, why should people donate to this exhibition?
This exhibition is an attempt to give voice and substance to a group of women who have been rendered all but mute, save for a signature and a date, in a rare enterprise where the highest and richest in the land rallied to offer succour to the weakest and most deprived members of society, indeed its outcasts, through the direct agency of Thomas Coram, the founder of this charity.
Every pound given will be a continuation of this historic moment in social history and help to make visible the women whose initiative gave impetus to the great achievements that were to follow.
With less than one day to go, can you help make this exhibition happen? Donate today and choose a reward, produced exclusively for this campaign.