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Portraying Pregnancy, Foundling Museum, review: a moving portrait of women's bravery

Lucinda Everett
Chantal Joffe, Self-Portrait Pregnant II, detail (2004) - Chantal Joffe

We’re in the age of the public pregnancy. Mums-to-be Instagram their ultrasounds, while tabloids zoom in on celebrity stomachs beneath “Is she, isn’t she?” headlines. But as recently as the late 20th century, pregnancy was a visual taboo. An unseemly proclamation of female sexuality to be airbrushed out of shot.

The portraits of pregnancy that this multifaceted and often moving exhibition brings together, then, are rare. But they also provide, as curator Karen Hearn puts it, a “new lens through which to look at […] women’s history”: 500 years of representation and politics, shifting social conventions and medical advances, female subjugation and empowerment.

Split over two floors, the exhibition begins with early images of the Visitation, including some exquisite 17th-century needlework, and unfolds chronologically. There’s Holbein’s delicate chalk portrait of Cecily Heron, her corset loosely unlaced; and Elizabethan paintings from an intriguing period during which pregnancy portraits became acceptable, probably thanks to public anxiety about the unmarried queen.

Isaac Cruikshank’s satirical etching, Frailties of Fashion, depicts a brief 18th-century trend for padding one’s stomach, as if with child. And Annie Leibovitz’s watershed 1991 Vanity Faircover of a nude Demi Moore opens the doors for more contemporary works.

Look out for Electra, a typically arresting piece by Jenny Saville, finished for the exhibition. There are objects scattered among the portraits, too, including a tiny ivory anatomical figure of a pregnant woman, complete with removable organs.

Hans Holbein II, Cecily Heron (1527) Credit: Royal Collection Trust

But the most powerful is a 17th-century “mother’s legacy text” – advice written by mothers to their unborn children, in case they didn’t live to deliver it personally. If the exhibition gives us a new lens, then this text provides a focus: female courage. We realise how many of the women in our favourite portraits may have been pregnant at the time, and multiple times before or after — carrying out their duties amid physical and emotional upheaval, while facing prospective death or grief.

And we see how often women took ownership of their image, snatching snippets of power even in this vulnerable state. In Mary Beale’s Self-portrait with Husband and Eldest Son (1659-60), the artist places herself on the (traditionally male) left-hand side, and chooses to depict her pregnancy. While Charles II’s formidable mistress Barbara Villiers, a woman remarkably in control of her image, sits for Sir Peter Lely in 1664, pregnant and holding one of the children she bore the king, in an audacious reflection of the Madonna.

Mary Beale, Self-portrait of Mary Beale with her husband Charles and son Bartholomew, (c. 1660) Credit: Geffrye Museum

Leibovitz’s 2017 Vanity Faircover of Serena Williams closes the exhibition. Learning that she “almost died” following childbirth provides a stark reminder: even today, pregnancy is a potent act of female bravery. And it should never be hidden again.

Until 26 April; free with museum admission; call 020 7841 3600 or visit foundlingmuseum.org.uk