Portraying Pregnancy

Portraying Pregnancy


The exhibition space in the basement is a little cramped and a little claustrophobic, but there is space on the walls on the first floor to hang larger works. The sub-title of the exhibition is From Holbein to Social Media, and underlines how unrepresented this subject has been over the years. The Holbein is an exquisite chalk drawing of Sir Thomas More’s daughter Cecily from the Royal Collection, produced five hundred years ago, but it has a freshness and vitality that is timeless.

      Nearly a hundred years later, the Flemish painter Marcus Gheeraerts painted a pregnant Unknown Lady in Red, which was acquired by the Tate in 1982, and it was quite fashionable to have portraits of pregnant ladies, painted precisely because they were pregnant. There was also another slightly more macabre reason for such depictions, in that, if the mother died during, or shortly after, giving birth, this became a memorial for the mother’s offspring. Maternal mortality was a very real risk in those days, and even as late as 1880, the rate was 200 deaths in 10,000 births. Before the Protestant Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII, the Virgin Mary was depicted as having had a Visitation from the Angel Gabriel, with her elder cousin Elizabeth, gesturing towards each others wombs. A charming needlework panel from the early 17th century is on loan from the Ashmolean Museum, with other facsimiles of 15th and 16th century wall-paintings from around England showing the same scene. 

The museum owns a splendid William Hogarth painting, The March of the Guards to Finchley, full of life, action and colourful bawdiness, with a pregnant ballad-seller centre-stage, quarreling with another woman over a grenadier, who is looking decidedly troubled. Two of Britain’s best cartoonists of the period are also represented, namely James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank, the Scottish caricaturist and painter, and father of George. Gillray’s satire Dido, in Despair, depicted a somewhat robust and distraught Emma Hamilton, eight months pregnant with the child of Horatio Nelson, who is seen sailing away with his fleet. On the window seat is an open book, entitled Studies of Academic Attitudes Taken from the Life, where a younger and more lithe Emma is depicted displaying her ‘Attitudes’, tableaux vivants in which she portrayed sculptures and paintings from classical antiquity, sometimes scantilly draped in veils and shawls. A second Gillray shows a pregnant servant being castigated by a grotesque, but finely-dressed, elderly gentleman, with the words,’ . . . and would’st thou turn the vile Reproach on me?’, suggesting that he was the likely father. Cruikshank’s Frailties of Fashion is a satire on the short-lived fashion for women to wear ‘belly pads’ under their clothing, so as to appear to be pregnant, and includes George, the Prince of Wales with his morganatic wife, Mrs Fitzherbert, apparently ‘with child.’

The leading tragic actress Sarah Siddons frequently appeared on stage whilst pregnant, appearing as Lady Macbeth, and portrayed on more than one occasion by George Henry Harlow, a prominent portraitist. The only problem with appearing on stage whilst pregnant was when she played the novice nun Isabella from Measure for Measure.

 One painting that had caused serious debate and controversy is Jan van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery. Is the lady in the picture pregnant, or not? Scholars have been arguing the point since it was bought for the nation in 1843. In the accompanying catalogue by the curator Karen Hearn, she categorically states that it is now considered that Arnolfini’s wife is not with child. People may have thought that because of the manner in which she holds the gathered folds of her long fine wool dress over her stomach, which was merely a fashion of the day.  In 2005, Marc Quinn’s Carrara marble sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant was unveiled on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Alison was born with no arms and shortened legs, a condition known as ‘phocomelia’, and she was seven months pregnant, which caused a bit of a stir, as she was completely naked. A smaller version is on display. Jenny Saville has been portraying herself for years, and there is a large, overlapping charcoal and pastel drawing of herself with her daughter Electra, both nude. Others to paint themselves pregnant are Chantal Joffe, Ghislaine Howard and Paula Modersohn-Becker, while Augustus John painted his wife Ida Pregnant in a joyful full length portrait in subtle brown tones. The exhibition rounds up with high-gloss ‘fashion’ photographs of rather coy and self-conscious pregnant ladies from the covers of Vanity Fair; a trend started by Demi Moore taken by Annie Leibovitz in 1991, and unadventurously repeated by Serena Williams, Neneh Cherry and Beyoncé. 

One grouch about the exhibition is the ridiculously low height at which the captions are placed; the same criticism that could be leveled at the British Museum’s Troy. It seems to be an irritating curatorial trend that has insinuated itself into the current museological language.

Portraying Pregnancy 

The Foundling Museum

40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ

Until 26 April 2020

Admission £12



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