Coinciding with 100 years of female suffrage, the Foundling Museum’s Ladies of Quality and Distinction exhibition is bringing to life stories of women who were essential in the Foundling Hospital’s history.

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 Andrea Soldi, Isabella Duchess of Manchester, 1738. Whitfield Fine Art. 

Since its opening, the Foundling Museum has been renowned for its elegant picture gallery containing the grand portraits of the key male figures in the history of the Foundling Hospital, including those of founder Thomas Coram and male governors. But now, partly in thanks to a crowd-funding campaign by Art Matters, women are taking centre stage for the first time, and after almost 300 years of being overlooked their stories are finally being heard.

Up in the newly repainted picture gallery hang the impressive portraits of the twenty one ladies of quality and distinction, who between 1729 and 1735 all signed Thomas Coram’s first petition for the Foundling Hospital. Though the petition was rejected by King George II, their support enabled Coram to win over their male relations and friends for a further two petitions, before the Royal Charter was eventually signed in 1739.

While William Hogarth’s famous painting of Thomas Coram still stands proudly in the gallery, he’s now in the esteemed company of the grand portraits of the women who were instrumental in his dream of providing a safe haven for children becoming a reality and have been brought together for the first time thanks to both public and private collectors. It really is an impressive sight. Next to him hangs the oil painting of Charlotte, Duchess of Somerset, who was the first woman to sign Coram’s petition in 1729. Each of the women whose portraits are on display have impressive stories of their own, including Sarah, Duchess of Richmond who endured 23 pregnancies; and Selina, Countess of Huntingdon who once broke into the House of Commons Gallery.

The exhibition continues down on the lower ground floor, where visitors can find about more about the woman who played crucial roles in the day-to-day running of the hospital, from governors and inspectors to matrons and domestic staff. History is brought to life thanks to period paintings including those of Lady Elizabeth Germain, an early supporter of Thomas Coram, and Beatrice Forbes, the fifth female governor of the hospital; letters from the likes of Princess Mary (president of the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children) and Charles Dickens, who wrote in support of Georgiana Mason’s application to be a matron, which was unsuccessful. There are also inspection reports on the welfare of children living with rural wet nurses, which include a particularly poignant note on one woman who couldn’t bear to be parted from the baby in her care (sadly she was) and information about the Ladies Committee, which improved conditions and education for girls at the hospital. More recent photos from the 20th century, including a heartwarming picture of the foundling pupils at play, help provide a glimpse into the lives of the children.

Ladies of Quality and Distinction is essential viewing and highlights stories of remarkable, selfless women which would otherwise be lost to history. With a wealth of compelling information on display it is an engaging exhibition which provides a fascinating insight into life over the past few centuries, and a greater understanding of how important women were in both the establishment and the running of the Foundling Hospital. It’s about time that these women take their rightful place in history.

By Kirsty Herrington 

Ladies of Quality and Distinction will be on display at the Foundling Museum until the 20th January 2019. For more information visit: https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/events/ladies-of-quality-distinction/