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The Foundling Museum opens a landmark exhibition resetting the Foundling Hospital's 300-year story
Andrea Soldi, Countess of Huntingdon with husband and children, c1740 © The Cheshunt Foundation.

LONDON.- This autumn, for the first time, visitors to the Foundling Museum will have an opportunity to discover portraits and stories of the remarkable women who supported the establishment and running of London’s Foundling Hospital. Marking 100 years of female suffrage, Ladies of Quality & Distinction resets the focus of the Hospital’s story, and radically re-hangs the Museum’s Picture Gallery.

Despite its male face, women permeate every aspect of the Hospital story; as mothers, supporters, wet nurses, staff, apprentice masters, artists, musicians, craftsmen and foundlings. Yet for almost 300 years, history has placed these women as a footnote in the story. The Museum is redressing this balance by bringing these overlooked stories to the fore.

Following a successful campaign via Art Happens, the Art Fund’s crowdfunding platform, the Museum brings together portraits of the ‘ladies of quality and distinction’ who signed Thomas Coram’s original petition to King George II in 1735, calling for the establishment of a Foundling Hospital. Working closely with eighteenth-century specialist Elizabeth Einberg, the Museum has identified portraits of these duchesses in public and private collections across the UK. Hung together for the first time, these paintings will temporarily replace the portraits of male governors that line the walls of the Museum’s Picture Gallery, reuniting the Ladies on the site of the charity they helped establish, and highlighting their role in shaping British society today. Included are magnificent court portraits by leading eighteenth-century painters William Hogarth, Thomas Hudson and Godfrey Kneller. The majority of the portraits are in private collections, having remained within the family or ancestral home. Some paintings have not been on public display for many years.

Downstairs in the Museum’s exhibition gallery, the lives of the women who supported the day-to-day running of the institution will be brought to life. Women worked in many different roles at the Hospital, from laundresses and scullery maids, to cooks and matrons. Beyond its walls the organisation was supported by a small army of wet nurses who fostered the children in their infancy, as well as inspectors who supervised them. It was not until the twentieth century that the first woman was appointed Governor. Nevertheless, many female supporters of similar social class to the Hospital Governors gave valued advice, particularly around the proper care of infants, girls and female staff.

Highlighted stories include: Mrs Prudence West, a female inspector and the only woman to run a branch Hospital; Miss Eleanor Barnes, one of the earliest female Governors of the Hospital; Mrs Elizabeth Leicester, an early matron of the Foundling Hospital who oversaw some of its most challenging years; and Jane Pett, a dry nurse highly acclaimed for her exceptional care.

Caro Howell, Director of the Foundling Museum said: ‘Women of every social class permeate every aspect of the Foundling Hospital story. After centuries of omission, their revolutionary, catalytic and invaluable contributions can at last be celebrated. We are incredibly grateful to the 336 donors who supported our Art Happens campaign to make this important exhibition possible.’

This exhibition forms part of the Museum’s year-long programme of exhibitions, displays and events to mark the centenary of female suffrage, by celebrating women’s contribution to British society, culture and philanthropy from the 1720s to the present day. The Museum raised over £20,000 towards this exhibition through a successful Art Happens crowdfunding campaign. The Museum is incredibly grateful to all our exhibition donors, including the 336 donors who gave to our Art Happens campaign, our main corporate exhibition sponsor Saxton Bampfylde, and to Art Fund, whose support made conservation of paintings loaned for this exhibition possible.

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