The Foundling Museum: Putting women back in the picture

  • 19 September 2018

Thanks to an Art Happens crowdfunding campaign, the stories of the women who supported London’s Foundling Hospital have been revealed and retold, writes Hester Musson.

Andrea Soldi, Isabella Duchess of Manchester, 1738 © Whitfield Fine Art

Andrea Soldi, Isabella Duchess of Manchester, 1738

A remarkable reunion is taking place at the Foundling Museum this autumn. In 1735, 21 women put their reputation on the line and signed a petition to King George II, calling for the establishment of a hospital for abandoned infants. Now portraits of these ‘ladies of quality and distinction’ will take over the museum’s Picture Gallery, temporarily replacing paintings of the male governors.

It was the shipwright Thomas Coram who, appalled at the sight of exposed and dying children in London, began asking wealthy and powerful men to back his campaign. They all refused. Then, after 10 years of fruitless labour, he had the revolutionary idea of asking their female relatives instead. In 1729, the 18-year-old Duchess of Somerset said yes.

‘Reputation was everything,’ explains Foundling Museum director Caro Howell. Associating yourself with the poverty and illegitimacy implied by a foundling hospital could be damaging in a way that is difficult to comprehend today, and was almost certainly one of the reasons the men initially refused to help. To sign, and to sign first, was a bold action by the young duchess, and it inspired others.

Howell is keen that visitors see these women not as remote figures in history, but as ‘Charlotte and Catherine and Henrietta… empathetic women getting together to try and make things better’. And they did – by using their influence to persuade enough gentlemen to sign the second, successful petition of 1739.

‘The difference between power and influence’ is a question that fascinates Howell; how ‘women have always been able to influence things even when ostensibly they didn’t have the power’.

The results of his new approach must have staggered Coram. ‘There’s no doubt,’ Howell continues, ‘that without women using their influence, this project would not have got off the ground.’

The portraits are all exquisite works of art in their own right, painted by leading artists of the day such as Godfrey Kneller and William Hogarth (who became a great champion of the hospital). Until now, they have been scattered across the country, mostly in private collections. Thanks to the detective work of 18th century specialist Elizabeth Einberg, and more than 300 donors to the successful campaign through Art Happens, Art Fund’s crowdfunding platform, they have finally been brought together to help rebalance the hospital’s story.

Herman Van Der Myn, Elizabeth, 3rd Countess of Cardigan, 1729 © The Trustees of the Horninghold Estate Settlement

Herman Van Der Myn, Elizabeth, 3rd Countess of Cardigan, 1729

As a result of reaching 186 per cent of its fundraising target, the museum has extended the exhibition to also honour women who were fundamental to the running of the charity but who often go undocumented – cooks, scullery maids, laundresses, matrons, inspectors and wet nurses. Extensive research has uncovered the stories of people such as dry nurse Jane Pett, and Prudence West, the only woman to run a branch hospital. Their social positions meant they would never have had their portraits painted, but Howell hopes ‘to put them back in the picture in a different way and rectify that process of historical overlooking’.

One challenge when the exhibition comes to an end is to ensure that these stories do not sink back into obscurity. Happily, with Art Fund support, the portraits themselves have undergone cleaning and conservation work where necessary. Many had hung for centuries in one place and needed stabilising to travel safely. Howell says, ‘It was a wonderful opportunity to really put them in the spotlight and make sure they shine.’

When they return to their owners, she hopes the shine of the women’s legacy stays with them. ‘They helped shape the face of social care in this country in a way that continues today. Their contribution was revolutionary and catalytic, and set in motion philanthropy in the arts.’

Ladies of Quality & Distinction is free with National Art Pass (£10 standard), 21 September – 20 January 2019, The Foundling Museum, London.


This feature was originally published in the autumn 2018 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

Tags: Art Happens