Joseph Highmore infanticide painting to be shown in UK for first time

The Angel of Mercy is part of exhibition of artist’s work at Foundling Museum, built to save abandoned children of 1700s London

A nearly 300-year-old painting of a woman strangling her newborn is to hang on the walls of the institution for which it was intended, the Foundling hospital, built to save the abandoned children of Georgian London.

The Angel of Mercy, painted by Joseph Highmore around 1746, will be shown for the first time in the UK as part of the Basic Instincts exhibition at the Foundling Museum in central London.

The exhibition tells the story of the hospital and the desperate women who brought their children there. Highmore’s works include many paintings showing his sympathetic approach to the plight of powerless women.

The painting shows an angel trying to stop the woman when a coral-coloured ribbon is already tight around her baby’s neck, and pointing the way instead to the newly built hospital, of which the artist was a benefactor and governor.

Jacqueline Riding, the exhibition’s curator, believes the small painting was a study for a planned large-scale work that Highmore would probably have donated, similar to his imposing painting of Hagar and Ishmael, which hangs with works by William Hogarth and other patron artists in the room where the hospital’s governors met.

She thinks the judgment must have been that the stark brutality of the image of the struggling baby made the painting impossible to exhibit. It has poignant details: the expensive coral ribbon, shown ornamenting baby bonnets in other paintings, is identical to some left as tokens in the hospital with babies whose mothers hoped one day to reclaim them.

“This is something that people certainly knew was happening to women who could see no other way out of the ruin of keeping an unwanted baby, possibly born as the result of rape and abandonment. But most refused to look the problem in the face, still less display it hanging on the walls,” Riding said.

Riding is curating the first exhibition on Highmore since 1963, and publishing the first major study of his work. Loans include tender paintings of his family and friends, and illustrations of his friend Samuel Richardson’s two bestselling novels, Pamela, and Clarissa, titillatingly moral tales of young women struggling to keep their virtue.

The Angel of Mercy stayed with Highmore’s family into the 19th century, when it was offered as a work by Hogarth, but rejected by the hospital. It was sold at least twice having been wrongly described as being by Hogarth or his circle, before being bought and correctly identified by the collector Paul Mellon. It is returning on loan from the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut.

The hospital was founded by the sea captain Thomas Coram, who was shocked when he stepped over a dead baby lying in a London gutter. His friend Hogarth gave lavishly, designed the children’s uniforms – as well as a subscription roll showing another near infanticide, a baby being rescued from a mother who has just dropped the dagger that would have ended its life – and rounded up his artist friends to support the institution. The hospital became a fashionable charity, where George Frideric Handel gave annual benefit concerts.

The hospital, built in fields on the edge of London, moved out to the country in the 19th century. The Coram charity still works with families and the museum is housed on the original site in a reconstructed Georgian building, with many features from the early structure.

“On his best days, Highmore is a really excellent painter,” Riding said. “On other days, he is turning out pot boilers, but good pot boilers, and who are we to blame him for that? He had a living to earn and a family to keep.”

  • Basic Instincts is on at the Foundling Museum in central London from 29 September 2017 to 7 January 2018
  • Basic Instincts: Love, Passion and Violence in the Art of Joseph Highmore, is published by Paul Holberton


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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