Exhibition | Basic Instincts

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on August 9, 2017

Joseph Highmore, The Angel of Mercy, ca. 1746; oil on canvas, 59.7 × 48.3 cm (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.362).

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Press release from The Foundling Museum:

Basic Instincts
The Founding Museum, London, 29 September 2017 — 7 January 2018

Curated by Jacqueline Riding

A highly successful artist and Governor of the Foundling Hospital, Joseph Highmore (1692–1780) is best known as a portrait painter of the Georgian middle class. However, during the 1740s Highmore’s art radically shifted as he turned his focus to societal attitudes towards women and sexuality. Curated by Highmore expert, Dr Jacqueline Riding, Basic Instincts explores this ten-year period and his disruptive commentary, reflecting his engagement with the work of the new Foundling Hospital and its mission to support desperate and abused women. On public display in the UK for the first time is a remarkable painting that still retains the power to shock.

In 1744 Highmore created a series of 12 paintings on his own initiative inspired by Samuel Richardson’s international bestseller, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. First published in 1740, the novel’s sixth edition of 1742 included illustrations by Hubert Gravelot and Francis Hayman. However, unlike the commissioned illustrations, Highmore’s paintings explicitly make reference to the abuse and sexual violence at the heart of Richardson’s story of a virtuous young maidservant fighting off the unwanted advances of her predatory master. Highmore and Richardson became friends, and Highmore subsequently illustrated Richardson’s masterpiece, Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady, whose tragic heroine avoids a forced marriage, but dies having been abandoned by her family, duped by an admirer, drugged and raped.

Unlike William Hogarth, Highmore’s representation of Georgian society favoured realism over broad humour and theatricality, so his nuanced articulation of social attitudes towards women and sexuality means that modern audiences can miss his challenging commentary. However, at the heart of Basic Instincts is a remarkable painting that has never before been publically displayed in the UK and which does not fail to shock. The Angel of Mercy (c.1746) depicts a desperate mother in the act of killing her baby, with the distant Foundling Hospital presented as an alternative solution. This painting is unique in western art for showing maternal infanticide as a contemporary reality. The fashionably dressed mother is free from direct biblical or mythological allusion, unlike Hagar and Ishmael (1746) the large canvas Highmore donated to the newly established Hospital, which represents an Old Testament story of maternal abandonment. Instead The Angel of Mercy confronts the ‘elephant in the room’ in terms of the Hospital’s campaign; that without Christian compassion and practical support, even respectable women will be driven to murder.

Basic Instincts curator Jacqueline Riding said: “This is the first major Highmore exhibition for 50 years and nowhere can his life and work have greater resonance than at the Foundling Museum: an organisation at the forefront of the public display, interpretation and appreciation of early-Georgian art. Setting The Angel of Mercy, the Pamela paintings and Hagar and Ishmael among Highmore’s most tender portraits of mothers and children, family and friends, uniquely demonstrates the artist’s depth and variety, while indicating the true breadth of British Art in a period still labelled ‘The Age of Hogarth’.”

Foundling Museum director Caro Howell said: “Basic Instincts demonstrates that in the eighteenth century, the Foundling Hospital’s impact on contemporary artists went far beyond a simple donation of art. For Joseph Highmore it sparked a radical engagement with the issue of women’s vulnerability to sexual assault and society’s unwillingness to support them, culminating in a work of quite exceptional power.”

Basic Instincts explores the limits and narratives around female respectability in Georgian society, and reveals the complexity of Highmore’s engagement with issues surrounding women’s vulnerability to male exploitation. The first major publication dedicated to Joseph Highmore and written by Dr Riding will be published by Paul Holberton publishing to coincide with the exhibition. The exhibition is supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

On display in the Museum’s historic rooms, a series of nine previously unseen sculptures by acclaimed contemporary artist Rachel Kneebone provide a highly charged counterpoint to Basic Instincts. Exploiting porcelain’s history as a material of refinement and rococo exuberance, Kneebone subverts viewers’ expectations by creating works that are simultaneously delicate and visceral. Raft of the Medusa’s tumbling limbs and fractured swags are at once coquettish and sinister; their gleaming white surfaces and exquisite detail belie scenes of collapse and dismemberment. Displayed amongst the Museum’s historic Collection, these works distil and abstract the Foundling Hospital’s suppressed narratives of sexual desire, emotional damage, and female strength.

Jacqueline Riding specialises in Georgian history and art. She read History and Art History at the universities of Leicester, London, and York and has over twenty-five years’ experience working as a curator and consultant within a broad range of museums, galleries, and historic buildings, including the Guards Museum, Tate Britain, and Historic Royal Palaces. From 1993 until 1999 she was Assistant Curator of the Palace of Westminster and later founding Director of the Handel House Museum in London. She has published widely on early-Georgian art and history, including her major book Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion (Bloomsbury 2016). She is currently writing a biography of William Hogarth (Head of Zeus). She was the consultant historian and art historian on Mike Leigh’s award-winning film Mr. Turner (2014) and is the consultant historian on his next feature film, Peterloo. Jacqueline Riding is Associate Research Fellow in the School of Arts, Birkbeck College, University of London and a Fellow of the Clore Leadership Programme.

Rachel Kneebone (b. 1973) lives and works in London. Recent solo exhibitions include Rachel Kneebone at the V&A, London (2017); 399 Days, White Cube Bermondsey (2014) and London; and Regarding Rodin, Brooklyn Museum, New York (2012). Group exhibitions include Obsession, Maison Particulière, Brussels and Flesh, York Art Gallery (2016); Lust for Life, Galleri Anderson Sandstrom, Stockholm and Ceramix at Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht (2015); 3am: Wonder, Paranoia and the Restless Night, The Bluecoat, Liverpool and Chapter, Cardi (2013–14); The Surreal House, Barbican Centre, London (2010); Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2008); and Mario Testino at Home, Yvon Lambert, New York (2007). In 2005, Kneebone was nominated for the MaxMara Art Prize and this year has been nominated for the breakthrough award for the 2017 South Bank Show Sky Arts Award.

The accompanying book is published by PHP:

Jacqueline Riding, Basic Instincts: Love, Passion, and Violence in the Art of Joseph Highmore (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2017), 120 pages, ISBN: 978 1911300 281, £25.

Published to coincide with the exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London, this fascinating book will re-introduce Joseph Highmore (1692–1780), an artist of status and substance in his day, who is now largely unknown. It takes as its focus Highmore’s small oil painting known as The Angel of Mercy (ca. 1746, Yale), one of the most shocking and controversial images in 18th-century British art.

The painting depicts a woman in fashionable mid-18th-century dress strangling the infant lying on her lap. A cloaked, barefooted figure cowers to the right as an angel intervenes, pointing towards the Foundling Hospital, the recently built refuge for abandoned infants, in the distance. The image attempts to address one of the most disturbing aspects of the Foundling Hospital story—certainly a subject that many (now as then) would consider beyond depiction. But if any artist of the period had attempted such a subject it would surely be William Hogarth, not the portrait painter Joseph Highmore? In fact, the painting was attributed to Hogarth for almost two centuries, until its reattribution in the 1990s. Even so, it is surprising that despite the wealth of scholarship associated with Hogarth and the ‘modern moral subject’ of the 1730s and 1740s, The Angel of Mercy has received little attention until now. The book and exhibition seeks to address this, while encouraging greater interest in, and appreciation for, this significant British artist.

Jacqueline Riding sets this extraordinary painting within the context of the artist’s life and work, as well as broader historical and artistic contexts. This includes exploration of superb examples of Highmore’s portraiture, such as his complex, monumental group portrait The Family of Sir Eldred Lancelot Lee and the exquisite small-scale ‘conversations’ The Vigor Family and The Artist and his Family, juxtaposed with analysis of key subject paintings, including the Foundling Museum’s Hagar and Ishmael and Highmore’s Pamela series, inspired by Samuel Richardson’s bestselling novel. Collectively they tackle relevant and highly contentious issues around the status and care of women and children, master/servant relations, motherhood, abuse, abandonment, infant death, and murder.





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