Basic Instincts Back

The urgent social concerns which prompted the establishment of the Foundling Hospital in the eighteenth century are at the heart of the revealing and intriguing exhibition which can be seen at the Foundling Museum. The clear focus of the institution’s charitable mission – the children who might otherwise have been abandoned by their unfortunate mothers– has been the subjects of a variety of innovative displays there in the last few years. Basic Instincts breaks new ground in many ways. We are invited to explore the life and work of the unjustly neglected painter Joseph Highmore (1692-1780), one of those involved from the earliest days of the Foundling project along with William Hogarth (1696-1764) and Francis Hayman (1708-1776) among others. Their large paintings in the courtroom which tell the story of the institution’s work using biblical exempla of early foundlings such as Moses are well known and documented. However, a recently reattributed work by Highmore which depicts the most extreme act of desperation by a mother, that of infanticide, is the key painting in the current display. The Angel of Mercy, c. 1746, is on show publicly for the first time in Britain. The literary and art historical framework of this painting, along with the social and economic issues which informed its production are all examined through a compelling sequence of images and artefacts, both well-known and unfamiliar.

Visitors are encouraged to engage with background social history by browsing a variety of books before entering the exhibition. These include Amanda Vickery’s Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (2009), Dan Cruickshank’s The Secret History of Georgian London (2010), Hallie Rubenhold’s Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, Sex in the City (2005), along with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748) and Highmore’s own publication Essays, moral, religious and miscellaneous, Volume 2, (1768). A glance at these admirably prepares us for the subjects we will encounter.

The catalogue explains that the title Basic Instincts is drawn from the range of human impulses fundamental to the social context of Highmore’s The Angel of Mercy, from ‘love–whether romantic, familial, parental or fraternal–passion, compassion, and humanity, to egotism, cruelty, fear and violence’ (p.7). Though this appears to be an ambitious claim for a small exhibition, it ensures that the emotive context of the objects directs us to a wider narrative for the painting. The painting is the last object to be encountered and the preceding ‘chapters’ are necessary to prepare us for its impact.

The selection of paintings and drawings, books and items from the Foundling archives has been made with exemplary economy so that despite the small space available, the visitor can gain a real empathy with and understanding of the artist and his subjects. Loans have been made from private collectors and from a wide variety of institutions such as The Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum and The National Portrait Gallery in London, The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and The Yale Center for British Art. Set against the rich maroon walls, Highmore’s family paintings first introduce us to the close domestic group of which he was clearly proud, and which contrasts with the fractured lives represented later in the room.

Highmore spent most of his productive artistic life living with his wife Susanna, daughter of the same name and son Anthony, in a comfortable house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields which is a short walk away from the Foundling. In The Artist and his Family (c.1732, private collection) Anthony is portrayed confidently showing his crayon sketch to his mother with the easy confidence of youth, while his little sister turns to the viewer, disturbed from the natural history lesson she is giving her doll from a book depicting birds. The artist is shown entering the room through a door at the back. This sense of movement along with the loose brush stroke and particularly confident portrayal of shine on fabric characterises other paintings by him and sets his work apart from the static images of many early conversation piece painters such as Arthur Devis (1712-87). The shimmering silk also suggests that he had been attentive to the style of Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) who was governing the Great Queen Street Academy where he studied from 1713. Highmore’s daughter did not undertake formal artistic training but the exhibition includes examples of her drawing and cut-out dolls and a reproduction of the captivating portrait of her by Highmore in which some of her cut-outs appear (Susanna Highmore, c.1740-45, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). The close bond between father and daughter is apparent, though his son remains less accessible from the pictures shown, and seems to disappear from the story.

A selection of Highmore’s lucrative and appealing portraits occupies a long wall, and we learn that after Highmore’s early work for City merchants, his move to Lincoln’s Inn brought him aristocratic commissions but the middle classes remained his core clients. He prided himself on undertaking all the work involved in a painting rather than relying on the contributions of other specialists to finish drapery effects for example. An impression forms of a devoted family man of integrity and shrewd business acumen as we move through his career. His gregarious wit is apparent in the large group Mr. Oldham and his guests (c.1735-1745; Tate) which is always a treat to see. Its idiosyncratic characters, featuring distinctive nose types and expressive eyes, all seated with slightly inebriated glazed expressions around a punch-bowl highlight the sociable networks which Highmore enjoyed. It also shows why his work became subsumed by and attributed to the greater oeuvre of William Hogarth who has become associated with the metonymy of the punchbowl and pipe in images of homosocial convivial gatherings. Equally this does a disservice to Hogarth who, while shaping a highly individual career for himself, was acutely aware of his fellow artists, their work and opinions and of his position within the contributing group at the Foundling.

Few attributed Highmore conversation pieces are now extant, and the statement by Highmore’s later son-in-law John Duncombe that he ‘painted more than any one of his time’ which is quoted on a wall label is a tantalising invitation to locate any surviving examples which might still hang in unsung obscurity. One survivor is The Vigor Family (1744, the Victoria and Albert Museum). Though at first glance its subject is a modest middle-aged woman displaying her embroidery while seated at a table surrounded by friends, its story resonates much further. Jane Vigor had accompanied her first husband to the Russian Court when he was appointed British Consul General, and there met and shared companionable time on her embroidery with the Tzarina Anna. The painting thus subverts the simple sign of a female domestic skill, and widens the context to suggest international diplomatic significance for Jane’s activity. The husband in the painting is her third and they married after he accompanied her back to England. Jane’s only child appears to have died at birth and so this Highmore work depicts both an unusual woman and a childless one who suffered greatly during the traumatic misfortune. In the course of learning about Highmore’s work, we encounter the variety of female experience, the unmarried girls and successful matriarchs, the couples and families which represent the normative structures of society.

The painting Mrs. Sharpe and her Child (1731, Yale Center for British Art) is highly pertinent for the exhibition. Its appearance towards the end of the catalogue with the discussion on The Angel of Mercy provides the connection which might be missed when first viewing it on the wall. The mother is dressed in rich shining white silk and her baby in a white lawn robe, the distinctive textures rendered with a confident brush. Their wealthy status is clear, and the imitation of a familiar Virgin and Child format is reinforced by a parrot on a perch which the catalogue identifies as an attribute of the Virgin. The significant feature of the painting within the exhibition’s theme is a prominent pink ribbon attached to the baby’s coral teether which curls round the baby’s back and flutters round its robe. The feminine pink ribbon becomes a sinister and deadly tool of destruction by the time we reach the climactic image of the exhibition, as chilling as the innocent kitchen implement which appears in a fictionalised crime scene account. Before we are confronted with this however, we need to understand another story or two to comprehend the circumstances surrounding Highmore’s Angel of Mercy.

Highmore is probably best known now for his series of paintings which illustrate scenes from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740). These were not commissioned but were advertised by Highmore to obtain subscriptions for a series of prints. The display brings together the paintings alongside selected prints from Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (1732), A Rake’s Progress (1735) and Before and After (1736), and allows fruitful visual comparisons between works undertaken at the same time and concerned with similar contemporary moral issues. While it is true that Hogarth’s prolific output has resulted in his dominance as a popular eighteenth-century artist, we also have an opportunity to assess the differences between the two artists’ styles. Highmore’s restrained, elegant rococo figures and interiors are illustrative and thus constrained by their purpose, but nevertheless rely on subtle details to convey emotion and encourage empathy for Pamela’s plight, while Hogarth could employ a range of devices to crowd his story with poignant narrative depth. We can enjoy close scrutiny of the carefully engraved details in Hogarth’s print After for example. The telling title of a book, Galen’s ‘Omne Animal post coitum Triste’ which tumbles out of the drawer is difficult to read in reproductions. Hogarth used both subtle references and multiple layers of satirical devices to make his point. The painting on the wall in Before depicting Cupid lighting a firework, and its burnt-out shell in After are typical of his comic vision.

Wall labels point out that the Pamela paintings were ‘weighted towards Pamela’s early trials and resistance to Mr. B, rather than lingering over her elevation to the social elite’. Highmore chose to illustrate scenes using ‘the deliberate employment of this famous novel as a vehicle for a hard-hitting personal critique of modern day society’. A delicate and refined Pamela rejects Mr. B in Pamela and Mr. B in the Summer house (c.1744, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), and scarlet highlights curve across the back of her skirt, through her bodice and down to end in the bright red of Mr. B’s breeches. It is a ribbon of colour drawing in the eye to apprehend the very real danger in which the heroine finds herself.

Display cases elaborate on Highmore’s concern about the issue of female vulnerability and rape. His painting of Teresa Constantia Muilman née Phillips in 1748 is introduced in the catalogue as a possible result of his ‘close association with Richardson and his heroines’ (p.90). She was a ‘former courtesan’ who wrote a three-volume memoir detailing her rape by an aristocrat and decline into financial dependence on men in exchange for sex. Only the mezzotint of the painting survives, and although the catalogue hints that both Phillips and Highmore were aware of the possible mutual rewards accruing from the publicity, and ‘some notoriety by association was no doubt good for a portrait painter’s business’ (p.90), he had genuine sympathy for her circumstances. Another caveat to a presentation of Highmore’s otherwise empathetic attitude to women’s suffering is shown in an extract from his Essays (1766) in which he proposes that a fear of infamy or an over regard for reputation could lead to a woman killing her unwanted child (p.8). With this in mind we come to the finale of the exhibition.

The Angel of Mercy is a modest size at 59.7 x 48.3 cm. Highmore painted it concurrently with his contribution to the Courtroom sequence, Hagar and Ishmael (1746) and there are many similarities between the two, such as the intervening angel figure. However, the subject matter is too graphic and disturbing to have been considered for public view in the Foundling Hospital. The woman represents an anti-maternal figure in the same shimmering white silk as worn by Mrs. Sharpe, discussed earlier. However, her pink ribbon is being used to strangle her newborn. Mother and child are caught in the animated struggle which would have resulted in the child’s death if the angel had not intervened. The ribbon is a symbolic umbilical cord, and possible strangulation at birth by this life-giving maternal connection is not uncommon. Here, it is an externalised representation of the cord and of the folly and anguish of the mother: folly because we assume her rich dress is that of a prostitute or courtesan, and anguish because the act is taking place in an unspecified secret cave-like location which may be where she has just given birth. On the right is a shadowy veiled female figure whose identity is uncertain but who may relate to the traditional trope of the choice of Hercules, the path to virtue or sin, fame or infamy which was common in allegorical prints.

The circumstances of the woman’s misery are reinforced in the exhibition by the selection of Foundling token entries on display in the cabinets. These are records of children who were admitted, with tokens attached to identify the child if a mother was able to return and reclaim it. The selected entries all include scraps of pink ribbon or lace, and they have an unnerving effect. The possible fate of the child is somehow reified in the scraps, a new reading created by this exhibition and one which intensifies the pathetic testimony of the tokens. They have appeared in other recent exhibitions in different contexts. For example, Enlightened Princesses (Kensington Palace, London, 2017) included tokens to show evidence of royal involvement in charitable causes. The mission of the Foundling Hospital is incorporated into the narrative of the painting where the hospital appears in the background and is indicated by the angel as the child’s salvation. The tokens, carefully recorded and preserved, point to an institutional imperative devoted to saving life and organising a future for children otherwise lost to the nation as viable and productive members of society. The emotive climax of this excellent exhibition is thus underpinned by the administrative book-keeping which has enabled a glimpse into the tragic circumstances surrounding the original motivations of the Foundling Hospital. In addition, Joseph Highmore has been drawn out of obscurity for good, and it would be very satisfying if, as a result, more of his paintings come to light to enrich our understanding of mid-eighteenth-century artistic culture. This exhibition is a well-balanced presentation of a harrowing subject and an introduction to an artist who did not shirk from portraying such a potent scene and inviting our judgement.

Basic Instincts, curated by Jacqueline Riding, is at the Foundling Museum, London from 29 September 2017 to 7 January 2018.