Curated by Professor Lynda Nead, this major exhibition explored the myth and reality of the ‘fallen woman’ in Victorian Britain through artworks and archival documents
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 Director Caro Howell’s essays on the exhibition looking at the mothers’ petitions to the Foundling Hospital and 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.
A specially-commissioned sound installation by musician and composer Steve Lewinson offered a new and engaging interpretation of the Hospital’s archive. Responding to this material, Lewinson worked with a range of actors to bring to life the voices of the women who applied to give their babies up to the Hospital, and the men who would have interviewed them as part of the admissions process. Featuring the voices of acclaimed actors Maxine Peake, Marianne Jean Baptiste, Ruth Jones, Renée Castle and Adrian Dunbar, alongside cellist Sarah Suckling, the installation offered a thought-provoking and unsettling interpretation of the Foundling Hospital’s archive, bringing to the fore voices which had previously been hidden.
Generously 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
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
The paintings give life to the letters, while the moving stories give voices to the paintings
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
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
'Fallen Women' by Lily Ford
- Contemporary Commission