'The Fallen Woman' at the Foundling Museum

Friday 6 November 2015

ONE part of John Rocque's 1746 map of London
TWO care leavers told artist Emma Middleton what teachers & parents had said to them at school
THREE David Shrigley's Untitled (This is a token), donated by the artist
FOUR a token brought with a child to be used as an identifier

The Foundling Museum charts the history of Britain's first children's charity, the Foundling Hospital, which became an institution after nearly two decades of campaigning by Thomas Coram, inspired to act after seeing children left in the streets. The Hospital took on the care of children whose mothers could no longer look after them, using a ballot to make selection as fair as possible. The children were admitted with small tokens to identify them, in case the parents could later return for them (which some did); they were renamed to protect their parents' identity; they were fed, looked after, and prepared for work of a 'servile and laborious nature'. Despite the relatively low expectations for the children, the Hospital was far preferable to the alternative: abandonment, or the workhouse. The Hospital formed the first public art gallery - painter William Hogarth donated the first piece, a portrait of Coram, in 1740. Other artists followed suit, and the Museum and the Coram charity continue to work with artists and young people today.

At the time of the Hospital's founding, around a thousand children a year were abandoned in London, and 75% of those born died before their fifth birthday. Times were especially dire for women who became pregnant whilst unmarried, often leading to destitution for both mother and child, and the beginning of what was seen as an inevitable descent into a 'downward spiral' of prostitution, immorality and possibly suicide or infanticide. To Victorian sensibilities these women were 'fallen', no longer adhering to the rules of moral respectability which were the order of the day. The Foundling Museum's current exhibition, 'The Fallen Woman', takes these women as its subject.

The exhibition is a great look at the stereotypes which harmed so many women in this era, and the ways artists have played into and helped create them. The distinction between the 'respectable' woman and  the 'fallen' woman was hinged on the notion of female purity and sexual chastity (a distinction that is still very much alive even today). Artists painted images of the Victorian woman in her rightful place: as the 'guardian of the home and of domestic and social order', relying on the 'Virgin and child' trope of religious imagery. They also visualised the 'fallen' - women who were considered anti-social or deviant for abandoning their 'women's mission' to be a wife and mother of legitimate children. The prostitute was used as a dramatic symbol, exploited by painters wishing to move audiences and draw attention to their work. George Frederick Watts' Found Drowned suggests symbolically that the woman in the painting has been reconciled with God - but only in death. Surrounding the works on show are the papers of the Foundling Hospital, which had by the nineteenth century moved on to admitting children based on their mother's chance of being restored to respectability. Mothers made petitions, having to prove that they were previously 'honest, sober and industrious', and were interviewed by an all male panel in order to determine their circumstances, need, and chance of reform.

The final touch on the show is Steve Lewinson's sound installation, 'Fallen Voices'. It really struck me throughout the exhibition that despite the focus on women, their experiences and the unfair limitations placed on them by society, there was little to nothing from women themselves. Petitions for the women were usually written by men, admission was done by men, largely everything was run by men. Lewinson notes that the 'female voice is frustratingly absent in the Foundling Hospital's 200 year history', with the women's often traumatic stories at most ventriloquized, or simply unheard. It's impossible to go back, and very difficult to reconstruct women's lives in a male-dominated society from their perspective. However Lewinson's piece is a small reminder of the real women whose experiences are the foundation of the exhibition, and goes some way to inject the grit of life back into the flat paper displayed on the walls.

FIND 'THE FALLEN WOMAN' AT: The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ (until 3rd January 2016)

1 comment:

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