Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media at the Foundling Museum is one of those shows that makes you realise what you haven’t been seeing. It is the first major exhibition to take on a historical silence within British portraiture – pregnancy.
The show’s straightforward premise allows it to cohesively group an eclectic selection of artwork spanning 500 years, some high profile, some lesser known, by Van Dyck, Lucian Freud, Mary Beale, Annie Leibovitz and many others.
The show’s curator, Karen Hearn, is clear that this is a personal selection – the “tip of an information iceberg” – following her 20-year-long research project on the topic, which she describes as making people “uncomfortable, embarrassed or even hostile” throughout history. Pregnancy has almost always been concealed in formal portraiture. Indeed, it is often only through additional biographical research that a woman’s “bump” can be revealed “behind” the finished work.
The exhibition weaves a chronological thread through a challenging set of interdisciplinary discussions taking in art and fashion history, Christianity, satire, disability, health, maternal mortality and changing societal attitudes. An invisible and specifically female history is revealed, with the physical and emotional demands of pregnancy frequently undertaken during active public or professional roles.
Our starting point is Hans Holbein’s astonishingly fresh chalk sketch of Cicely Heron from the 1520s. Heron was the daughter of Thomas More – the early English philosopher, Renaissance humanist and chancellor to Henry VIII – and her gown’s lacing is clearly loosened for her growing stomach.
The exhibition’s final artwork was made in 2017 and is displayed on an iPad. The Ethiopian-born, Yale-educated artist Awol Eizku has made a photographic take on high-art iconography with a veiled woman beneath a lavish arch of roses, better known as Beyoncé’s Instagram pregnancy announcement.
Role of 20-century feminism
Exceptions aside – “only in the late 20th century was pregnancy no longer airbrushed out”, says Hearn, as women artists increasingly explored their own pregnancies. For example, the British painter Jenny Saville’s Electra (2012-19) is on a big scale and the painter Chantal Joffe’s pose in her striking 2004 self-portrait is beautifully angled to show off her stomach.
As a necessary acknowledgement of the profound grief this topic brings to many, a prominent trigger warning has been placed at the entrance with support organisations listed. The real dangers of pregnancy ensure that the death of mother or baby is not far from many of the stories in the show. The smiling Ida Nettleship, a talented artist who trained at the Slade, died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her fifth son by her husband, the English painter Augustus John.
One of the most evocative objects is a handwritten manuscript by the English writer Elizabeth Joscelin from 1622. Later published as The Mother’s Legacie, it is a long letter of instruction to her unborn child. Joscelin died nine days after the birth of her daughter, Theodora, and the manuscript was discovered in her desk.
Crossing the centuries
The exhibition suffers slightly from the decision to use reproductions of a few paintings that couldn’t be borrowed. I would have used graphics or digital images – it is always frustrating not to have a key work, but hanging a framed reproduction usually diminishes the impact of the “real” around it and is off-key here within this impressive exhibition.
One aim of the show is to place contemporary issues of women’s identity, emotion, empowerment and autonomy within a 500-year context. The small size of the gallery means that we start to swiftly compare pregnancy experiences across centuries. We discover that the 18th-century actress Sarah Siddons performed on stage right through eight pregnancies until four weeks before giving birth, all accommodated by her theatre managers due to her massive popularity.
Just a step away is Marc Quinn’s marble sculpture Alison Lapper (8 months), 2000. The caption notes the divided reaction when the scaled-up marble statue was placed on public display on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth in 2005. While the female nude is synonymous with art itself, the portrayal of Lapper, an artist herself, pregnant and disabled, was unprecedented.
As well as this crossover of eras, the biggest delight is that the show isn’t solely limited to portraits. Manuscripts, objects, stained glass and especially costume adds depth to the experience. A striking 1817 portrait of the much-loved Princess Charlotte, the single legitimate child of George IV, is reunited with the real blue and gold silk pregnancy dress Charlotte is wearing in the painting by George Dawe.
It is hugely satisfying to compare the painted and real dresses, whose drawstring waist was “discreetly suitable for an expanding figure”. Charlotte’s childbirth story also ends tragically – she would have been Queen of England if she had lived.
Rare stitched linen adjustable pregnancy stays and stomacher make for an inspired display. Made for the orphaned heiress Mary Verney in 1665, we can imagine ourselves wrestling with this pink silk, leather and ribbon garment, worn against the skin. Its inclusion brings the painted ladies on the wall closer to our own flesh and blood experiences.
The Foundling Museum is an atmospheric and apt home for this show. Artists are “central to the Foundling Hospital story – they remind us that the arts do not just provide the visuals to our lives; they can change, challenge and improve them”. Portraying Pregnancy certainly fits this criteria with this rich and thought-provoking exhibition.
Emma Shepley is a freelance curator