Marking 100 years of female suffrage, Ladies of Quality & Distinction reset the focus of the Foundling Hospital story, revealing portraits and stories of the remarkable women who supported both the establishment and the running of London’s Foundling Hospital. 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 to the story.
This exhibition brought these overlooked stories to the fore, presenting portraits of the ‘ladies of quality and distinction’ who in 1735 signed Thomas Coram’s original petition to King George II calling for the establishment of the Foundling Hospital. Displayed together for the first time, these paintings replaced the portraits of male governors in the Picture Gallery.
Downstairs in the exhibition gallery, the lives of the women who supported the day-to-day running of the institution were brought to life. Highlights included Mrs Prudence West, a female inspector and the only woman to run a branch Hospital; Miss Eleanor Barnes, one of the earliest female Governors; and Mrs Elizabeth Leicester, an early matron of the Foundling Hospital who oversaw some of its most challenging years.
The Museum is incredibly grateful to all of the exhibition donors, including those who gave to the Art Happens crowdfunding campaign, the main corporate exhibition sponsor Saxton Bampfylde, and to Art Fund, whose support made conservation of paintings in this exhibition possible. With thanks also to The R&I Pilkington Charitable Trust, David Pike, The Golden Bottle Trust, Members of the 1739 Club, and all the many individual donors whose kind support helped realise this exhibition.
This enlightening show…puts women back at the heart of the institution that, mostly, showed them such kindness