Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin and Paula Rego showed new and related works at the Foundling Museum throughout the eighteenth-century interiors as well as outside spaces.

Curated by Gill Hedley for the Foundling Museum’s contemporary art strand, this exhibition brought together these three acclaimed artists for the first time. Each artist is well-known internationally for powerful responses to pain and anguish associated with aspects of childhood, motherhood, abortion and loss. The works shown here revealed both toughness and tenderness and follow the long tradition of artists as social commentators, from Hogarth onwards, in showing new work at the Foundling.

Paula Rego made a major new work combining several paintings in the form of a devotional altarpiece with life-size figures of foundling children in the powerful installation Oratorio. Depicting the fall from grace of women in the eighteenth century and the devastating repercussions, this work combined images of seduction, rape and infanticide with a specific reference to Hogarth’s famous Gin Lane, as well as little scenes of childhood tenderness. Based on the traditional altarpieces Rego grew up with in her family home in Portugal, Oratorio stood over 3 metres high and dominated the first floor landing of the Museum.

In the Exhibition Gallery, seven of Rego’s preparatory drawings were displayed alongside seven works on paper from Tracey Emin’s book One Thousand Drawings. Mat Collishaw showed photographic works including his series Idle Young depicting Indian street children with eighteenth-century backdrops. Collishaw also displayed works within the traditional spaces of the Museum including a lightbox image referencing the narrative of Romulus and Remus as children nurtured by savage wolves, and a new snowdome work made especially for the Foundling.

Tracey Emin included items from her series Baby Things, discarded baby items like a tiny sock, mitten and a teddy cast in bronze. These were originally shown as part of the Folkestone Triennale in 2008 highlighting the issue of teenage pregnancy. In addition Emin showed text and personal ephemera relating to memories of family and lost children alongside some of the tokens left by mothers with their babies at the Foundling Hospital. While Emin’s practice is widely perceived to be bold and provocative, these works were surprisingly subtle and fragile. In addition, Emin included her blue neon work exhibited on the exterior of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and originally conceived as a piece of public art near the Foundling Museum. Foundlings and Fledglings, a work of text and bird image was remade especially for the Museum’s façade to bring it back to its original context.

The backdrop of the Foundling with all its traces of so many children given up for care, especially the poignant tokens left by mothers in the hope of reunion one day, lended an extra element to Collishaw’s lightboxes and photographs of children in extremis, Emin’s extraordinarily powerful and autobiographical references to loss and Rego’s disturbing and touching new history of a group of foundlings.

Watch this short film by The Guardian

Tales of innocence and experience: Tracey Emin, Paula Rego and Mat Collishaw