Interview: Professor Lynda Nead

What do you love about the Foundling Museum?

The Foundling Museum is like an oasis in the middle of the madhouse of London. You walk in off the streets and immediately feel like you’re going back in time. It is unique in terms of its amazing art collection and its extraordinary history; I can’t think of another museum that has works by artists of the importance of Hogarth and Gainsborough combined with a past that tells us so much about the lives of ordinary women and children. It’s an art gallery and museum of social history all rolled into one. I also love the way the Museum isn’t stuck in the past but engages with contemporary artists and musicians.

What drew you to the subject matter of the ‘fallen woman’?

I’ve worked for many years on the art of the Victorian period. When I first began to research in this area, Victorian art was just becoming accepted again as a serious academic subject, after years of being dismissed as bad art and merely sentimental. I wanted to get behind these attitudes and understand how Victorian art functioned within 19th-century society. There were so many paintings of fallen women by well-known artists such as Rossetti and Watts and I wanted to understand why artists chose this subject; what did it mean to its original audiences; and given its association with sexual immorality, were there risks for artists who chose to depict the ‘fallen woman’ in publicly exhibited pictures?

Research into the Hospital’s 19th-century history has previously been neglected. How will the exhibition address this narrative imbalance?

The 19th century was a key moment in the history of the Foundling Hospital, when it changes its admittance policy to only accepting illegitimate children. This ties in absolutely with the growing obsession in the period with the regulation of sexual deviancy and the separation of the morally pure from the fallen. We have done enormous amounts of research in the Foundling Hospital archives, which are located in the London Metropolitan Archives, examining the petitions which the women completed when they applied to have their babies taken in by the Hospital, along with notes taken at their interviews and reference letters. It is an amazing archive and we will be exhibiting a number of these objects alongside the paintings, illustrations and slides.

Why do you feel it is so important to give a voice to the women who left their babies in the Foundling Hospital’s care?

It is very difficult to gain access to and ‘hear’ the voices of the women themselves in this period. We tend to learn about them through the voices of others, such as doctors or clergymen, or novelists like Dickens and journalists such as Henry Mayhew. In the archive material we actually get to see women telling their own stories. Sometimes these are incredibly sad and moving; they speak of violence and abandonment, of shame and desperation. It is unlike any other historical material that I have worked with. We will be using these words in the sound installation that has been specially commissioned for the exhibition.

Do you have a favourite painting in the exhibition?

I am very excited that we will be showing Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast [see gallery on project page]. Redgrave had an extremely distinguished artistic career and was a very successful painter of modern moral subjects. The Outcast was painted as his Royal Academy Diploma Work and is a really striking treatment of the subject of the young woman who is thrown out of her family home because she has had an illegitimate child. The picture is set in a modest interior and shows the paterfamilias pointing to the door which is open enough for us to see the snowy night into which the woman is being expelled. It is a perfect visual summary of the fall from virtue in the Victorian period.

It will be the first time in generations that Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Gate of Memory [pictured] and Frederick Walker’s The Lost Path will be on display in the UK. Why was it important for you to include these works in the exhibition?

We are so excited to be able to bring these two outstanding pictures to the Foundling Museum. The Gate of Memory is a beautiful watercolour by Rossetti depicting a prostitute standing under an archway and watching a group of innocent children playing; their song reminds her of her own lost innocence. In their early years, the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to use modern subjects to raise important social issues and not ‘disguise’ them in historical dress. The Lost Path is just one of those iconic masterpieces of Victorian painting by an artist associated with Social Realism. It has been used on covers of Victorian novels but now visitors to the exhibition will have a chance to see the painting itself.

Finally, why should people donate to this project?

The most important and unique thing about this exhibition is the connection between the subject of the Fallen Woman and the location in the Foundling Museum. We will be showing the archive materials on the site where women came to leave their petitions and to be interviewed by the guardians of the Hospital. The paintings represent the women’s stories in images that were meant to move and delight their audiences. Audiences will hear these women’s voices saying their names and telling their stories as they look at the images on the walls. I really hope that they will be as moved by them as I am.

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