Curated by Professor Lynda Nead, in collaboration with the Foundling Museum's curatorial team, this major exhibition focused on the myth and reality of the ‘fallen woman’ in Victorian Britain.

In an age when sexual innocence was highly valued and sex for a respectable woman was deemed appropriate only within marriage, the loss of chastity for an unwed woman had multiple repercussions. The figure of the ‘fallen’ woman was popularly portrayed in art, literature and the media as Victorian moralists warned against the consequences of losing one’s virtue.

This exhibition drew together the work of artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Richard Redgrave, George Frederic Watts and Thomas Faed, who considered the subject of the fallen woman in their work and helped propel the myth. In addition, newspaper illustrations and stereoscopes demonstrated how depictions of the fallen woman in popular culture also helped define a woman’s role and limitations within society.

The exhibition also explored the written petitions of women applying to the Foundling Hospital at the time. During the early nineteenth century, London’s Foundling Hospital changed its admission process to focus on restoring respectability to the mother. Only the petitions of previously respectable women bearing their first illegitimate child were considered.

Read the exhibition guide to view the mothers’ petitions to the Foundling Hospital as well as one of the show’s most striking paintings, G F Watt’s Found Drowned, or discover the story behind the nineteenth-century stereocards that were on display.

Exhibition supported by The London Community Foundation and Cockayne – Grants for the Arts, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The Idlewild Trust, Old Coram Association, The Honorable Eugene Johnston III, Jim Moyes, David Pike, Frederick & Connie Sheetz, The Maas Gallery, The Midtown Business Club, The Fallen Woman Exhibition Supporters’ Circle

Voices have come back to life as a result of the Foundling Museum’s new exhibition
FT Weekend
The paintings give life to the letters, while the moving stories give voices to the paintings
The Independent
The Fallen Woman exhibition is not about the past. It shines a light on the way we continue to treat the poor, those who are not health literate, and women who do not live up to expected views of femininity and respectability
The Lancet
Walking around the Foundling Museum’s exhibition I am upset and hopeful in equal measure. We do know what children need now. We don’t blame women for everything. We are building a better society. It’s worth revisiting the past to remind ourselves that we really don’t want a return to Victorian values
Jeanette Winterson, The Daily Telegraph

This short film explores the predicament of unmarried mothers who had their babies taken in by London’s Foundling Hospital in the nineteenth century