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The Georgian painting that still shocks us today

a painting of Georgian woman strangling a baby with red silk as an angel intervenes and pints to a building across the Thames

Joseph Highmore, The Angel of Mercy, c1746. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The Foundling Museum explores Georgian attitudes to love, desire and female respectability through the radical paintings of Joseph Highmore

For all of its sense of beauty and allegory, Joseph Highmore’s 1746 painting The Angel of Mercy is a deeply shocking artwork.

Highmore (1692-1780) is best known as a portrait painter of the Georgian middle classes, a highly successful artist and Governor of the Foundling Hospital, but during the 1740s his art radically shifted as he turned his focus to societal attitudes towards women and sexuality – and The Angel of Mercy is his undoubtedly most troubling.

“The Angel of Mercy has allegorical elements to it,” says Foundling Museum Curator Kathleen Palmer, “but it is a well-dressed woman in contemporary dress at the point of killing her child. Even when you see it today it’s quite shocking.

“At first the painting seduces you with shimmering colours. The fabrics and the angel’s wings have a lovely feathery texture, and then you look closely and you see what’s actually happening, that the pink ribbon is actually around the neck of a baby. How many images do you actually see of somebody in the act of killing a child?”

The painting, in which the angel intervenes and points towards the Foundling Hospital in the distance, forms the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the Foundling Museum exploring the world of the now largely forgotten Georgian painter and his relationship with the hospital. The first children’s charity, the Hospital was founded in 1739, with the intention of taking in babies who would otherwise have been abandoned or, like the one in the painting, ‘disposed of’ on the streets of Georgian London.

a painting of a Georgian lady holding a baby

Joseph Highmore, Mrs Sharpe and Her Child. 1731

a painting of four portly Georgian gentleme with clay pipes and glasses of port

Joseph Highmore, Mr Oldham and his Guests, c.1735-45. © Tate, London 2015

a painting of a well to do Georgain family in their drawing room gathered around a table

Joseph Highmore, The Harlowe Family between 1745 and 1747.

Alongside the hospital, with the support of William Hogarth, Highmore, Frederick Handel and others, the charity established London’s first art gallery to try and bring audiences to the hospital and make them aware of their work. But despite its relevance, The Angel of Mercy was never donated or even shown there.

As far as anyone knows it wasn’t even shown in public in Highmore’s life-time and remained in his studio. By the early 19th century it was being described as a work by Hogarth. Despite being bigger than Hogarth during his lifetime, Highmore’s star had waned by the Victorian period and Hogarth, with his lively Georgian narratives, had eclipsed him.

“Many of Highmore’s paintings are attributed to Hogarth, because that gave them a higher market value,” says Palmer. “Hogarth becomes a kind of poster boy for the 18th century art in Britain and so many paintings by other artists of the time are ascribed to him.”

During this time someone did write to the Foundling Hospital offering to sell Angel of Mercy to them. The letter, on show in the exhibition, now resides in the Hospital Archive and it describes the painting as a Hogarth, together with a loose description of what it depicts.

The Hospital chose not to purchase it at that point and it disappeared into obscurity. Eventually it was purchased by Paul Mellon for his collection of British art, which is now in the collection at Yale University and this is the first time it’s been on public display in the UK.

a painting of a Georgian interior with seated women in silk dresses and men in powdered wigs

Joseph Highmore, The Vigor Family, 1744 © Victoria and Albert Museum

an allegorical painting in which an angel appears before a woman with a prone child next to her

Joseph Highmore, Hagar and Ishmael, 1746 © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

One Highmore painting that did make it into the Foundling collection during the eighteenth century is the 1746 narrative painting, Hagar and Ishmael, which depicts the biblical story of Hagar and her illegitimate son Ishmael. Similar in theme and structure to the Angel of Mercy, the painting shows the moment when mother and son have been sent away into the desert. Ishmael is at the point of dying of thirst and Hagar is in despair, when an angel appears to show her where she can find water.

“This painting has this practical compassionate element – the angel intervening on behalf of an unmarried mother,” says Palmer. “So at the time it was considered a much more suitable expression of all those themes than the Angel of Mercy, because it’s given that biblical setting. So he gave Hagar and Ishmael to the Foundling Hospital rather than Angel of Mercy. I think that he himself felt that it was probably too strong.”

Highmore’s association with the Foundling coincided with an exploration of new themes in his painting that were highly resonant with the Hospital and its work, and alongside his Hagar and Ishmael and other biblical paintings, he started to paint works that illustrated the novels of Samuel Richardson.

He began with paintings based on Richardson’s Pamela, and followed it up with Clarissa, the story of a young woman in service whose master is attempting to seduce, or more accurately, rape her.

“It’s a story that would have been familiar to many of the women who ended up feeling that they needed to leave their children at the Foundling Hospital,” says Palmer. “So I think he’s interested in that and what brought women to the hospital, what their circumstances were and that it wouldn’t necessarily have been their fault. You do feel that that’s coming across in his work, that he’s really taking a broadly sympathetic view.”

a painting of a Georgian era woman in a state of undress on an older man's bed

Joseph Highmore, Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B. 1743-44. © Tate London, 2015

a painting of a Georgian interior domestic scene with a young woman reading to a group of children

Joseph Highmore (British, 1692-1780). Pamela tells a nursery tale. Circa 1744. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Four of the Richardson paintings are on show in the exhibition together with a fascinating series of society portraits, including one of Samuel Richardson and another of the courtesan Teresia Constantia Phillips whose real world circumstances mirrored those of the fictional Pamela.

Highmore was also regarded as one of the primary painters of group portraits – known as conversation pieces – and his portraits of middle-class mothers and children in particular make for a an interesting juxtaposition with The Angel of Mercy. It was these earlier successes that allowed him to move into the more rarefied world of history and narrative paintings, which also included an ambitious interpretation of the Good Samaritan, which can be seen in the exhibition.

Also on display are some of the tokens left by mothers with their babies when they brought them into the hospital. Some of them are pink ribbons, just like the murder weapon Highmore chose to depict in his painting.

Two hundred and seventy years after it was painted, The Angel of Mercy, displayed in the place that that inspired it, reminds us of the vital role the Foundling Hospital played in the rescue of young lives from the teeming, Hogarthian streets of eighteenth century London.

Basic Instincts is at the Foundling Museum until January 7 2018.


The Foundling Museum

London, Greater London

The Foundling Museum explores the history of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery. Established in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, and continuing today as the children’s charity Coram, the Hospital was set up as an institution ‘for the maintenance and education of exposed…

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