British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Conference, St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

Detail from Joseph Highmore, The Angel of Mercy

Detail from Joseph Highmore, The Angel of Mercy, c.1746, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Paper: ‘Suitable to the Place for which they were designed’: Joseph Highmore’s Foundling Hospital paintings

In 1739, and after decades of debate, London’s ‘Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children’ received its Royal Charter, and in tandem with the design of the new building, its potential as a showcase for contemporary British art was conceived and exploited. Joseph Highmore’s Hagar and Ishmael (completed and donated in 1746) was one of four history paintings that formed the core of the fine art scheme located within the Governors’ Court Room. In addition to this official commission, Highmore independently produced a small narrative painting now known as The Angel of Mercy. Both paintings directly engage with the societal contexts and concerns that instigated the hospital’s foundation and are the focus of this paper.

The close proximity in date between Highmore’s twelve canvasses responding to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded (paintings completed 1744, engravings 1745) and his association with the Foundling Hospital, demanded that the artist confront in close succession issues surrounding abuse against women and attempted rape as well as child neglect, abandonment and murder. Thus Highmore, both as an artist and as a ‘middle-class’ member of English society, was contemplating, addressing and articulating pictorially and in text some of the most controversial and pressing issues of the period. In so doing, he was compelled to define what were ‘suitable’ visual responses to these issues. His ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ foundling hospital paintings are located at the centre of this philosophical and artistic progress.

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