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The Fallen Woman

From its launch on 23 September 2015, which was attended by celebrities such as Grayson Perry, The Fallen Woman exhibition at The Foundling Museum was praised on Twitter for its ‘heartbreaking stories beautifully curated and displayed’, while it was recognised as ‘the story of 19th-c single motherhood plus morality. Sobering, poignant stuff'. It was also described as ‘an incredible, important, balanced show recovering female testimonies’.


The Foundling Museum commissioned Birkbeck art historian Professor Lynda Nead to curate the exhibition because of her research on the visual representation of women in Victorian Britain. This exhibition set the stories of the foundling mothers alongside some of the most outstanding examples of this subject in paintings, engravings and photography, by artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Frank Holl, George Frederick Watts and Emma Brownlow.

In curating the exhibition, Professor Nead carried out research into the Foundling Hospital archives, now held at London Metropolitan Archives, drew on prints and paintings from the historic Foundling Museum collection, and gathered loans of pictures from the Watts Gallery in Surrey, the Wellcome Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Museum of London, the Royal Academy and the Makins Collection (a private collection in the US).

She observes ‘Foundling mothers and fallen women may seem to belong to a distant Victorian world, entirely different from our own. In the end, however, the petitions and the paintings worked to define and separate the deserving and the undeserving women; to select those who could be rescued and to reject those whom the Governors believed could not be saved. Such decisions are still being made in our own society as we continue to judge those in need; separating the stories we believe from those we suspect.’

Musician and composer Steve Lewinson was specially commissioned to create a sound installation, Fallen Voices, which featured the voices of actors Maxine Peake, Marianne Jean Baptiste, Ruth Jones, Renée Castle and Adrian Dunbar, alongside cellist Sarah Suckling.


There were 15,542 museum visitors for the duration of the exhibition, a 20% increase on the previous exhibition. The Fallen Woman exhibition web page received 15,587 page views, of which approximately 70% of visitors were new users. The exhibition was covered in at least 31 blogs and websites. Reviews appeared in The Guardian (Joanna Moorhead), The FTTelegraph (Jeanette Winterson), London Art File, Camden Review, The Tablet, and The Lancet. And Professor Nead was interviewed on a number of radio programmes including Radio 3’s Freethinking.

Comments in the visitors’ book revealed how deeply the exhibition affected people. One visitor commented, ‘great to see how times have changed having been a single parent myself. I have definitely never felt like a fallen woman’; another said it was ‘an insight into the dark side of Victorian Britain’. While some people felt not enough has changed since then, ‘Some attitudes portrayed are sadly still engrained in some sections of society’, others pointed out, ‘Women have come a long way thank goodness but still far to go’. Whatever their specific views, the visitors’ book reflected strong reactions to the stories revealed in the exhibition. 

You can see images, petition transcripts, the guide, commissioned sound installation and school resources from the exhibition.