Songs of Innocence, Experience, Ambivalence
Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin, Paula Rego: at the Foundling.
museum devoted to the history and experiences of London's foundling children
Essay published in the international journal Childhood in the Past.
Gill Hedley is a writer, an independent curator and a consultant on contemporary visual arts.
Tracey Emin artist Matt Collishaw artist Paula Rego artist
Three artists of major international reputation were invited by Gill Hedley, an independent curator, to respond to the collections and themes of the Foundling Museum in London in 2010. Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin and Paula Rego have all made remarkable works over the years with subject matter that lies at the heart of the Foundling story: exploitation, loss, grief, sex, love, parenthood and childhood. Each artist responded to the invitation with great generosity and either made new work or lent works never previously seen.
Three artists of major international reputation were invited to respond to the Foundling Museum in 2010. Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin and Paula Rego have all made remarkable works over the years with subject matter that lies at the heart of the Foundling story: exploitation, loss, grief, sex, love, parenthood and childhood. Each of them responded to the invitation with great generosity and made new work or lent works never previously seen.
William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience was published in 1789 when the Foundling Hospital had been open for over fifty years. Blake alternates sentiment with caustic imagery of great power and so, too, do Collishaw, Emin and Rego. However, each of the visual artists, in their different ways, also introduces a sense of ambivalence. We may see images of innocent babes disturbingly juxtaposed with adults experienced in many ways of the world but no explicit judgement is made for us.
Tracey Emin is an artist whose keenly and painfully autobiographical work has more often than not dealt with sex, for good or bad, and her ambivalent attitude to motherhood. Medical advice led her to believe she could not have children but she became pregnant nonetheless and had an abortion in 1990. The trauma of the experience led her to destroy all her previous work and she stopped painting for many years.
She did however continue making monoprints in the 1990s and chose a selection of these for the Foundling Museum exhibition. Her work in the late 1990s continued to focus on motherhood. The video Conversation with my Mum, 2001, is a discussion with her mother about whether or not Emin should have children and it is a theme to which she returned in work made during her late thirties. Many of these works were given a room to themselves in her retrospective at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2008.
The invitation to show her work at the Foundling Museum came at a time after Emin exhibited a major work, which was created with the Foundling and its history in mind, at the Venice Biennale, where she represented Great Britain in 2007. This first and last work in the Foundling Museum exhibition was a light sculpture on the front elevation of the building, a version, specially made for the space, of the work that Emin first showed in Venice.
Prominently across the façade of the Foundling the artist’s own words, in her handwriting, read in neon: ‘Foundlings and Fledglings – our Angels of this Earth’. Alongside this is a neon sculpture of a small bird on a branch. The whole piece echoes William Blake’s (1789) On Another’s Sorrow from Songs of Innocence:
Hear the small bird’s grief & care,
Hear the woes that infants bear
Three small but powerful works by Emin were placed outside the building in such a way that a passer-by might not realise that they had encountered a work of art. Under a bench in Brunswick Park opposite the Foundling, on the steps of the museum and on the railing behind Thomas Coram’s statue, three tiny bronzes were carefully secured. These are casts of real items that a child seems to have tossed aside or lost from a pram: a toy, a sock, a glove. The artist has rescued original items from streets and then painted the bronze so a complete naturalism is achieved. She invites us to think (and we will probably continue to think when next it happens to us) of all the times when we have seen a soggy glove and wondered whether to leave it alone in its puddle or put it somewhere more prominent in case its owner comes searching. There is pathos in the contrast between a clean little garment or plaything, whose function is to soothe or protect, found soiled and abandoned on a street or in park. Again, the first versions of these works were conceived for elsewhere but the resonance with the Foundling and abandonment is very strong.
The first series of Baby Things was created for the Folkestone Triennial in 2008, where they remain on public display throughout the town today. The idea of separation (a beloved teddy dropped, one mitten or bootee lost, one still with the baby) echoes very strongly the tokens that are the most moving items in the Foundling Museum’s collection. Mothers were obliged to leave an item by which they and their baby could be identified; the mother retained its twin or pair. The small pink mitten on the railings will now remain there in perpetuity as it has now been acquired for the permanent collection of the Foundling Museum, thanks to the generosity of the artist and an anonymous donor.
Many of the paintings in the Foundling, especially on the staircase and the grand Picture Gallery are portraits of the great men who were the trustees and benefactors of the Foundling. Above all, Hogarth’s brilliant tour de force portrait of Thomas Coram, 1740, dominates the Picture Gallery with its bravura air of informality and masculine busyness.
In arresting contrast is a work by Emin placed in the Ante-Room of the Picture Gallery. This installation of 2007 with its visceral and intimate quality has a title that says all that is needed: My Nan Made These Baby Clothes for Me Before She Died, She Said By the Time I Had A Baby She Would Be Making Clothes for Angels.
It is accompanied by a very moving handwritten account of Emin’s visit to her grandmother when she died. The vitrine and frame are painted in nursery primrose yellow, the colour chosen often for nurseries before the baby’s sex is known. The voice of Emin’s grandmother brings a new element of the story, bringing to the fore all those other members of a family who might suffer loss when a baby is abandoned. Grandparents were also separated from the Foundlings, though few would have lived to an age to become great-grandparents.
The Court Room of the Foundling has the most complete rococo interior in London. Within its elaborate plasterwork is two series of important paintings given by the artists to the Foundling Hospital through a deal brokered by Hogarth both to promote their work and support the charity. One series of small roundels is of other charitable hospitals, including a view of Charterhouse painted by the very young Thomas Gainsborough (1748). The larger series is of biblical scenes, painted by Hogarth and some of his contemporaries (1746-8), all of which feature stories of maternal care. Within this remarkable room, in which all the formal business of the Foundling Hospital was at one time conducted, Tracey Emin placed some of her own collection of babies’ clothes and shoes, bought over several years and unused. Simply displayed in a small case and on a tiny clothes rail they make an immediate link with a selection of mothers’ tokens alongside taken from the museum’s collection. The new shoes are in pairs; the tokens each one half of a separated pair. The tokens and the Emin installation are tiny, persistent reminders of the real nature of the business that was discussed in that room and a counterpoint to the rhetoric of the biblical paintings.
On the top floor of the building is the Handel Room, where the other great eighteenth-century artist who supported the Foundling Hospital, is celebrated. Armchairs conceal speakers through which visitors can quietly and individually listen to recorded selections of the composer’s works. During the course of the exhibition, Tracey Emin slipped a small booklet into the pocket at the side of each chair alongside notes on the music. The cover has a drawing, Much Love, and inside is an explicit text: Abortion How It Feels. Painful and intrusive as this may seem there is a carefulness and deliberation in slipping it quietly into the chair pocket, just for a reader to happen upon it. The title is clear enough and the first paragraph explicit enough to warn anyone who might be offended. Everyone will be distressed to a degree. Within the Foundling we do not normally hear the voices of women who suffer sexually transmitted diseases or of those who undergo abortions without being quite certain that they are right to do so. A small reminder is an important balance.
Paula Rego was born in Portugal and grew up entranced by the fairy and folk tales told to her by her grandmother, aunts and servants. As an artist she, too, is a quintessential story teller and describes herself as ‘a drawer’ more than a painter. Nonetheless, the variety of methods she employs to tell her remarkable tales involves paint, printmaking, pastel, and the modelling of figures. Her north London studio has the feel of a backstage workshop to a theatre or opera house, specialising in grand guignol (a gory version of Punch and Judy).
Rego’s reply to the invitation to show at the Foundling was instant and passionate. Her response in terms of the work that she produced was unexpected both in terms of scale and complete appropriateness, owing an equal amount to her Portuguese childhood and to her response to the Foundling story. It is all the more extraordinary to see the work in the knowledge that it was produced at a time, perhaps even as an antidote, when the artist was deeply involved in the creation of a major museum devoted to her and the context of her work, La Casa das Historias in Cascais, Portugal.
Rego grew up in an upper middle class household in Portugal, a country that laboured under a dictatorship until 1974, which she left to attend finishing school in England and subsequently the Slade School of Art. She became pregnant by the painter Victor Willing, who was at that point still married to his first wife. He returned to his wife; Paula to her father in Portugal. She returned to England to give birth to their first daughter; Vic and Paula married and had a family of three children. She taught briefly at the Royal College of Art where Tracey Emin was a student but they only recall discussing men, not art. Amongst many other international awards, honours and solo exhibitions, Rego became the first Associate Artist at the National Gallery, London, in 1990 and the influence of earlier masters, Ensor, Goya and Hogarth is something she relishes.
Early work by Rego often tells stories with animals as her protagonists; a major series later involves girls and dogs as equals in scenes of ambivalence and implied viciousness. One of her motifs is the turning of tables so that power shifts and many brilliant series of prints have focused on the disturbing worlds of children. Her speed of hand and mind as a graphic artist has re-interpreted a range of childhood subjects that include English nursery rhymes, Jane Eyre, Peter Pan and the Children’s Crusade.
The Portuguese government cancelled a bill in 1998 that would have legalised abortion after the first ten weeks of pregnancy. As a protest, Rego produced a major series of large paintings that depict the horror of backstreet abortions. She continues, unflinchingly, to address powerful and taboo subjects such as sex trafficking and clitoridectomy. She has noted how often this kind of cruelty is meted out by a woman to another woman.
The power and impotence of men, the role of woman as victim and abuser, the potential for violence within children and their vulnerability are themes throughout her work and all are brought together in her response to the Foundling.
Entering the Foundling, the first work on display to confront the viewer was Paula Rego’s drawing of a rape which sums up exactly how many Foundling stories may have started:
Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secrecy the human dress.
(taken from Blake’s (1789) A Divine Image in Songs of Experience)
This is a sudden and brusque reminder that every touching and tragic story that the Foundling recalls started with a sexual encounter, violent or not.
Her most powerful and outstandingly successful contribution is a new work for the Foundling, entitled Oratorio. It is based on the type of personal devotional altar called an oratorio with which the artist grew up in her parents’ and grandparents’ homes in Portugal. Her grandfather had a private altar on a similar large scale to this and Rego recalls the oddness of the differentiation in scale within it. It was a setting for devotional statues of saints in metal and plaster and in all sizes. Rego still has her mother’s smaller, more portable oratorio. In English, the word recalls Handel and his musical composition for voices and orchestra, telling a sacred story without costumes, scenery, or dramatic action. Rego’s version has costume, scenery, dramatic action, and story but no religion.
Instead of scenes from the life of Christ or the saints, the work has panels to its back and wings that tell of rape, giving birth alone outdoors by moonlight, a Foundling who has her hair chopped off, attempts to drown newborn babies and a dance with Death. The top right panel echoes both Hogarth’s famous Gin Lane image and, just as strongly, the notorious photograph of the late Michael Jackson dangling his infant son from a hotel balcony.
On the altar table there are little three dimensional figures, dressed in authentic versions of Foundling uniforms. These all create small poignant stories of their own: a raggedy baby is held piteously like a Christ-figure across another’s lap and a small boy attempts to gain comfort from the breast of a girl of his own age. Once more, Blake’s (1789) Songs of Innocence – spring – are invoked:
Here I am;
Come and lick
My white neck;
Let me pull
Your soft Wool;
Let me kiss
Your soft face
The artist has said that she was very conscious of the Foundlings’ lack of physical attention and intimacy. Each child was well fed, warmly clothed and their education and Christian moral welfare was observed, but affection would have not been on the curriculum. The boy who blindly seeks to suckle from his little friend is poignant but also maybe a slightly sinister foreshadowing of the sexual ‘misunderstandings’ that can lead to the violence of rape or incest and the whole dreadful cycle continuing.
Images of innocence and experience collide and there is ambivalence throughout. Rego’s drawings show scenes of rape and child murder, with a cast of children, men and young and old women. These all act as reminders of the stories that prefigured the arrival of the Foundlings in their new home in Bloomsbury, as products of rape or as survivors from failed attempts to get rid of unwanted babies. A series of eight pastel drawings show the process of nuance and refiguring that led to the creation of the final masterpiece. Rego created, from papier mâché in her studio, the well in which the babies are drowned like kittens and reworked several times the details of the cast of victims and torturers within the scene.
There is no differentiation in handling or tone between the scenes of cruelty and the attempts at tenderness and no message of Christian morality is passed from artist to viewer. The bench on which the viewer sat to contemplate this rare thing, a secular altarpiece created by a woman artist in the twenty-first century, comes from the original Chapel of the Foundling Hospital.
Mat Collishaw was in the Young British Artists’ (YBA) legendary Freeze exhibition, in July 1988, and sold a work, Bullet Hole, to Charles Saatchi. The title of the show Freeze came from a catalogue description of Collishaw’s work which is a photograph – 7.5 by 10 feet (2.29 m by 3.05 m) – of a bullet wound to the back of a skull, take from a pathology text book.
Photography underlies Collishaw’s work in its widest definition from its earliest history to the subliminal effect of television and internet images. He often combines modern technology with historic framing devices, often literally, which emphasise that magic lanterns and smoke and mirrors, were the equivalents of today’s gadgets and hardware and that ways of viewing are always modified by time and setting. This was seen to great advantage at a solo exhibition of his work at the Freud Museum in 2009 and in Retrospectre, a response to the work of the film maker Sergei Paradjanov at the British Film Institute in 2010.
How we view often dominates what we see. Collishaw employs seductive imagery and detailed presentation to trap his viewer in a moment of sentiment or aesthetic enjoyment of a horrific image. In the 1990s he began to make work on the subject of the homeless. He makes clear that his interest lies less in the political or social aspects of homelessness than in the ways these matters can become visible or remain invisible and how sentimentality is easily engaged. He has talked about the salacious attention to period detail that film or television programme may apply to the dirt and stink of poverty which enables a contemporary audience to feel moved or even enchanted, but at a safe distance. Our visions of poverty are so often defined by the greater familiarity and proximity we have to the sanitised imagery of poets and novelists, painters and television art directors.
The Small Court Room on the ground floor of the Foundling is the one formal room to which the mothers came, to tell their story, perhaps explain who the father of the child might have been and what became of him, then to enter a ballot which decided whether their baby would be chosen as a Foundling.
For this room, Mat Collishaw made a snow globe, Homeless Chimney Sweep, 2010. It contains the image of a small chimney sweep, prompted in part by the marble figure of a young boy at the foot of the main staircase. The playful format with its swirling snow and charming figurine prompts us to think carefully about how easy it is to be sentimental and to generalise. It also recalls Tom the little sweep, who later became one of the water babies in Charles Kingsley’s novel from 1863, as well as Blake’s (1789) The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
The snow globe found its place underneath one of Hogarth’s most important paintings, The March of the Guards to Finchley, with all its incidents of debauchery and petty crime in the part of London which we now know as the Tottenham Court Road. In the same room hangs Emma Brownlow’s series of scenes of the Foundling Hospital in Charles Dickens’ day. Her father John Brownlow, a Foundling himself, was probably the inspiration for Mr Brownlow in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, written a few streets away. Hogarth shows a viciously comic scene, while Brownlow’s version of the lives of Foundlings, in their real setting, is charmingly sweetened; experience versus innocence. Collishaw combines the two elements like a showman then stands back to add his own distance and ambivalence.
Away from the souvenir of a street child, safe in its Victorian allusions, Collishaw’s powerful light box, Children of a Lesser God, 2007, brings an image of paternal strength and pride into the Foundling.
While male images and history abound in the Foundling through many portraits of venerable philanthropists and trustees, the stories of the Foundlings’ absent fathers are usually only implied. The new names given to the Foundlings when they entered the Hospital spoke of ambition and aspiration so that small Walter Raleighs, Francis Drakes and William Shakespeares were created. When Foundlings boys grew up they entered the army or the navy where possible.
Children of a Lesser God echoes the legend of Romulus and Remus, the founder of Rome and his twin, abandoned on a hillside and suckled by a she-wolf). Here two babies are suckled on a city street by a wild bitch, while the dog fiercely guards and scavenges for his family. As with Rego’s Oratorio, there is ambivalence. The dog snarls at anyone who might attempt to reach his family, and like the lion in Night, from Blake’s (1789) The Songs of Innocence:
My bright mane for ever
Shall shine like the gold
As I guard o’er the fold.
The animals are handsome and magnificent but the scene is urban, raw and feral with the bizarre contrast of a cosy floral sofa. In February 2010, at the time of writing, there has just been in the news yet another tragic tale of a child dying from parental neglect, but at any point we might recall the violence with which some parents demand their rights and prevent the public authorities from reaching out to help children at risk. Not all fathers are violent; not every kind of protection ultimately helps a child. The gravitas of the scene, in so many ways like a painting although it is a very carefully staged photograph, ironically reflects many elements of grand society portraits where an image of a dynasty is lovingly and admiringly captured for posterity.
Nearby in cases are four daguerreotypes by Collishaw, contemporary versions of an old photographic technique where an image is captured on polished silver, the surface like a mirror. The images of children being carried from danger recall the never-ending scenes of disaster and rescue (e.g. the school massacre at Beslem in 2004 and the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti in 2010 which flood our television screens. Here we are given a moment to pause and remember victims as individuals through these delicate and fleeting images. The presentation of the photographs in hinged brass and velvet cases takes us away from glossy, fast-paced and quickly forgotten images and adds to the sense of preservation and reverence.
Finally, alongside Tracey Emin’s monotypes and Paula Rego’s drawings, Mat Collishaw showed a series of small photographs, The Idle Young. Each photograph is framed, like Children of a Lesser God, in dark, carved wood to emulate the framing of old master cabinet paintings. Each image is of an Indian street child, photographed by Collishaw, with a backdrop superimposed later on. Each backdrop is taken from an old master painting – Gainsborough, Tiepolo – adding an ironic element of style and tradition. Every classical portrait painter’s studio would have a standard landscape or dramatic curtain to add weight and status to a sitter. The contemporary children here are comparatively well-dressed, confident in manner and expression and maturely poised. They are at work, knowingly posing in order to receive their few rupees. The smallest boy is posed in front of Ingres’ The Bathers, a group of naked women in a sensual harem. The viewer confronts the ambivalence of prurience and public versus private morality, in this series as throughout the entire exhibition of Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin, Paula Rego – At the Foundling.
With thanks to Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin, Paula Rego, their galleries and studios and all the staff at the Foundling.
Blake, W. 1789. Songs of Innocence and of Experience (electronic first edition accessed in the British Museum, London)
Kingsley, C. 1995. The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (first published in 1863). Oxford: Oxford University Press