I won’t lie, I am hugely excited about this one. ‘Ladies of Quality and Distinction’ has been on my radar since early this year when I attended a press launch to coincide with their Art Happens crowdfunding campaign. The museum intended to radically re-hang the museum’s picture gallery, taking down the men and sourcing portraits of influential women who signed Thomas Coram’s original petition to establish a Foundling Hospital in 1735.
You can read more on the campaign and the museum in my first blog, but this blog gets to celebrate the culmination of the crowdfunding campaign. I have to confess my husband is one of the 336 donors who supported this project. It was eventually 186% funded blowing the Foundling Museum’s target on a heartfelt idea to redress the balance of men and women’s stories in the museum.
It has taken 3 weeks to install the ladies and I hear a new lick of paint has been added to the walls to set them off in all their finery. Stories of women permeate through the whole museum not just the picture gallery. The temporary exhibition space has been given over to uncovering the hidden lives of the women who supported the day to day running of the institution as inspectors, advisors, matrons, laundresses, scullery maids and cooks.
I love the 1919 meeting notes of the ladies committee on the supervision of girls clothing that examined samples of girls knickers and decided they needed thicker material in winter. You can imagine the male governors being only too glad to pass the responsibility of knickers on to the women.
Wealthy women also volunteered as inspectors, supervising rural wet nurses who cared for infant children before they were to return to the hospital around the age of five. There are some poignant stories of wet nurses who became very attached to their charges and asked to apprentice them as a way of keeping them, although not always successful.
I really like the letter from Sarah Smith, an inspector in the early 19th century, who admits being ‘quite delighted with my employment’ but confesses ‘I do not exactly understand the money matters’. There is a refreshing honesty about worrying whether you are up to a job that feels very contemporary. It highlights an opportunity that could be quite daunting for women but one that could bring influence and teach good financial sense and judgement that could extend beyond their own homes that was perhaps unusual for the time.
It is fascinating how the museum has been able to tease out some stories of the women whose careers were based at the hospital, from scullery maids to matrons and cooks like Mabel Sharnock (1889-1989) who spent 20 years working on what must have been a hard physical job. The Servants Register from 1925 is a delightful insight into the characters of the staff. One woman is – ‘a fairly good cooker but sullen tempered and uncertain’, whilst another is ‘a very nice woman, quiet, refined and hard working, but not a very good cook’.
You can hear women’s voices throughout the whole museum and it is worth taking a trip up to the top floor to hear how Handel, a great supporter of the hospital, often composed specifically for female performers like Anna Maria Strada who sang the main soprano roles in 25 of his operas.
It is with great excitement that I finally enter the picture gallery. All around me are glorious women who welcome me into their circle. It is a triumph to see the space so altered and for the first time I am surrounded by a sea of female faces. It is quite strange but the space feels less intimidating with the men removed. But I am glad to see Thomas Coram remains with his supporters club displayed in solidarity with him.
There is so much to compare in fashion and style, from the feisty Isabella Duchess of Manchester by Andrea Soli, depicted as the goddess Diana, complete with leopard skin cloak, to the four court ladies on the far wall looking decidedly like some sort of 18th century girl band about to strut their stuff on the main stage.
Some of the ladies seem bold and fiery, whilst others bare a contemplative look that makes you wonder what is going on behind their eyes. The accompanying booklet delves into their lives, although wealthy by no means all lives were without struggle and sadness.
You can’t help but look at Ann Duchess of Bolton and wonder at her life, unhappily married to Lt. General Charles Powlett she lived as a recluse whilst her husband used her inheritance to fund a lavish lifestyle.
The portraits have been chosen to represent the ladies as near as possible to when they signed Coram’s petition. At this time Ann was also having to deal with her husband falling in love with the actress Lavinia Fenton, immortalised in Hogarth’s paintings.
More than just faces from the past, the stories reach out to us and remind us of young women often forced into marriages and alliances they had no control over. Ann Countess of Albemarle had 15 children of whom only 6 survived to adulthood, I can’t imagine having to bear the loss of so many children, even in an age where it was more common.
I think the story of the Foundling Hospital, the emotive setting and the detailed research into the ‘Ladies of quality and distinction’ brings them to life, they are much more than portraits of long dead unfathomable faces on a wall.
As Caro Howell, director of the Foundling Museum, tells me on the opening, as you walk round the room you get a sense of these women and you have to remember what a daring thing it was for them to put their names to Coram’s petition to start a Foundling Hospital. These women were in their own way revolutionary, bold and dynamic. They used their initiative in creative ways to bring about change and it is with thanks to them that 300 years on the Foundling Hospital’s story can be told.
I love the exhibition – I knew it would be fantastic and it is. To walk into a room full of portraits of women is a completely new experience and an empowering one at that. But far from being a tale of the great and the good this is the powerful story of women from all walks of life, regardless of class, whose lives were touched by a desire to improve children’s lives.
Ladies of Quality and Distinction is on at the Foundling Museum from 21 September 2018 – 20 January 2019. For details on opening times and ticket prices please see the website – https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/visit/