As The Fallen Woman enters into its final weeks, Director Caro Howell looks at one of the most striking pictures in the show: Found Drowned by G F Watts, painted in 1849-50 and on loan from the Watts Gallery.
This work was chosen as the exhibition’s lead image because it perfectly encapsulates the way art mythologized the idea of the ‘fallen woman’, and the social and moral debates contained within the fallen woman narrative, including desire, illegitimacy, religion and the dangers of the city.
The scene is set under Waterloo Bridge where the body of a young woman in a flame-coloured dress has been washed up on the foreshore of the Thames. Watts, like a number of artists, took inspiration for this painting from Thomas Hood’s popular poem The Bridge of Sighs. The poem describes the fate of a young woman who deceived by love, becomes pregnant, homeless and eventually commits suicide by throwing herself off Waterloo Bridge. In 1912 Watts’ wife Mary wrote that the painting portrayed “the wreck of a girl’s life” and for Victorian viewers, even those unfamiliar with Hood’s poem, the girl’s back story is clearly signposted.
The size of Found Drowned – it is over 2m long – ensures that no freighted detail goes unnoticed; the heart shaped locket falling from her lifeless hand, the murky water lapping at the hem of her dress, the distinctive arch of Waterloo Bridge framing the scene, and the single star in the night sky. Waterloo Bridge was a notorious spot for suicides, so much so that its “new and most unhappy kind of celebrity” was mentioned in a London guidebook of the 1840s. As a consequence, the bridge became a useful shorthand in the fallen woman narrative and was used by several artists, including George Cruikshank. The final plate of Cruikshank’s widely circulated series of engravings The Drunkard’s Children shows the Drunkard’s daughter, reduced to prostitution, jumping off its side to her death. However, whereas the downfall of Cruikshank’s character was brought on by the father’s sins, the locket in Found Drowned speaks to an unfulfilled romantic promise being the cause of the suicide.
Found Drowned is also interesting for being one of only four paintings by Watts to focus on the suffering of the poor. They were all painted between 1849 and 1850 but not exhibited at the time, no doubt due to their discomforting social commentary. Found Drowned was first shown at the Liverpool Academy in 1862 and then again in 1881 at Watt’s own Grosvenor Gallery. Yet even thirty years on critics still found the subject matter radical and at odds with prevailing tastes. The Spectator wrote: “Bad policy, Mr Watts to confront these “curled darlings” with so vital a question. You come to close to home, Sir to our consciences to be agreeable.”
Despite society’s harsh and uncompromising attitude towards women who became pregnant outside marriage, Watts’ sympathetic and romanticized depiction of the dead young woman reflects Hood’s words; ‘…Take her up instantly, / loving, not loathing. / Touch her not scornfully; / Think of her mournfully, / Gently and humanly…’ The woman’s crucified pose beneath a bright star hints at both her merciless persecution in life and her salvation in death. The title too opts for procedural description rather than articulating suicide and its attendant moral judgement. However, while Watts aimed to illicit sympathy for his fallen women, he nevertheless held back from showing the full horror of her situation; even in death, she retains her youth and beauty.
It is therefore sobering to read the mother’s testimonies which hang alongside Found Drowned: Sarah Farquhar who writes in 1854 that on discovering her pregnancy “my first thought was self-destruction and this I attempted twice.”, or Annie Culver in 1865 who states; “He promised marriage when he should leave the regiment. When pregnant I told him and he slighted me and told me to drown myself and that he would help me to do it. He did not deny the paternity.”
Found Drowned is one of many beautiful and revealing pictures on display in The Fallen Woman. The complex relationship between morality and sympathy revealed by the artworks and the Hospital’s archive makes for rewarding and important viewing.
The Fallen Woman is open at the Foundling Museum until 3 January 2016