This portrait shows Isabella Montagu, Duchess of Manchester, dressed as Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt, childbirth and women.

The painting is by Andrea Soldi, an Italian artist who came to London around 1736 and established a successful career as a society portrait painter.

Isabella Montagu played a key role in the establishment of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity. The hospital was the brainchild of the philanthropist Thomas Coram, and was supported by the leading artists, musicians and craftsmen of the day.

Coram struggled for 17 years to secure a Royal Charter that would allow him to establish his charity. After a decade not a single man had signed his petition, so he began to approach women. In 1729 the Duchess of Somerset became the first person to sign; Isabella, Duchess of Manchester, was the fourth. When the petition of 21 women’s signatures failed in 1735, the women put pressure on their husbands to sign. The Foundling Hospital received its charter in 1739 and the petition with the names of male supporters is now displayed in the Foundling Museum. The women’s names survive only in Coram’s pocket book and were written out of historical records. Since most of the portraits in the collection are of the hospital’s male governors, or works donated by 18th-century male artists, women are largely absent.

Soldi’s portrait of Isabella Montagu was displayed at the Foundling Museum as part of the exhibition ‘Ladies of Quality & Distinction’, supported by a campaign on Art Fund’s crowdfunding platform, Art Happens (see feature in the autumn 2018 issue of Art Quarterly). The show was the culmination of a year-long programme to explore the story of the hospital and its collection from a female perspective. Portraits of the 21 women who signed Coram’s petition were exhibited in the picture gallery normally occupied by the portraits of the male signatories.

By acquiring this portrait, the Foundling Museum is now able to tell the story of the women who played such a key role in its establishment.

Provenance

The Dukes of Manchester at Kimbolton Castle till its sale in 1947; Sold at the Kimbolton Castle sale, 1949 to Wiggins and Co; Sold 1982 to Mr and Mrs Clovis Whitfield.


The Foundling Museum

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