Susanna Avery‐Quash (ed.), Ayla Lepine (ed.), Isobel Muir (co‐editor), Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart, digital edition (London: The National Gallery, 2022).
At every point in this sacred story, which has such crucial importance particularly for Christian, Jewish and Muslim people, there are life‐changing consequences and opportunities for transformation.1 From the shores of the River Nile to the parting of the Red Sea, the story of Moses’ leadership is a story about God’s liberating power, even in utterly unlikely circumstances. The Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi produced this monumental canvas at the court of King Charles I in London in the early 1630s, to celebrate the birth of the king’s son and heir, the future Charles II. It is not Egypt depicted in the background, but London and the River Thames.
Orazio, who crossed borders himself from the art world of his native Italy to no less than the royal court in England, depicts the story with a bold sensitivity to this scriptural moment’s implications in relation to power, family and hope. The painting was made to hang on the ground floor of the Queen’s House in Greenwich, so that the two figures on the right would have looked as though they were gesturing out of the window, towards the north side of the river. This painting is sumptuous and theatrical. It is surprising too, as it captures not the joy of Moses’ reception into Pharoah’s daughter’s own family, but the ambiguity of discovering an unknown child – a foundling – and being presented with an ethical dilemma. Not only rivers are being navigated but so too are borders of race and power. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and this painting represents a biblical interaction between oppressor and oppressed in which, for the sake of love and faith, borders and boundaries are radically crossed. A child’s life hangs in the balance.
In the Quran’s account of the birth of Moses, Allah says to Moses’ mother Jochebed, ‘Do not be afraid, and do not grieve, for we shall return him to you and make him a messenger.’2 Moses’ mother’s faith in God is a turning point – indeed, the foundation – in her son’s salvation, and ultimately his vocation too. Her son mediates God’s promise of liberation of an enslaved people longing for freedom. Moses’ leadership is forged in his mother’s decisive action. The Finding of Moses, and the scripture that inspired the painting, do have a vulnerable boy at the centre, sucking his thumb and utterly dependent, but this is also a narrative of strong, faithful women who were determined to do what is right for the sake of the most vulnerable. It is a lesson for us all, and from a Jewish perspective Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has observed, ‘We were freed and became obligated to care for the vulnerable people in our midst – especially the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt. That’s the story. That’s the narrative. That’s who we are.’3
Moses’ mother, fearing for her infant son’s safety because of an edict from Pharoah to murder the Israelites’ new‐born sons, places him in a basket in the river. She longs for his survival and the cost of her sacrifice is the heartbreak of separation, perhaps forever. When Pharoah’s daughter asks for her servant to bring her the basket, she places herself within a complex cultural and religious division between those with power and those without. Her decision to be compassionate and take Moses into her own household is made through her own agency. She does not ask a man’s permission, and the countercultural, subversive decision is made on her own terms.
In the central background of the picture, two women catch an excited glimpse of the infant, one pushing the other’s head away in the hopes of getting a closer look. Two others gesture towards the distant landscape, drawing attention to the ribbon of river on the lower right. Moses is sucking his thumb, self‐soothing, while waiting for someone to nurture him. It is a sumptuous image of flowing silks and lush landscape, and it is an image that delves into the heart of the drama delineated in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Exodus as well as Surah 28 in the Quran.
The baby is the focus of our attention, presented by a kneeling enslaved woman. Though she stares at Pharoah’s daughter, the latter does not return her gaze. Pharoah’s daughter’s finger points towards the boy’s genitals, as if to say, ‘this is a Jewish child’. Her face is turned towards the figure in red and white on the far left, whose own face and hair suggest a layer of exhaustion and trauma even as she offers a tender touch to the figure in green kneeling below. These are key figures in Moses’ survival as they are, respectively, his mother and sister: his sister Miriam came forward to offer to find a wet nurse for the foundling. The person she suggested was her own – and Moses’ – mother Jochebed. In Orazio’s interpretation of the story, they are in negotiation with Pharoah’s daughter; Moses’ future hangs in the balance.
Moses’ mother and sister demonstrate the courage and hope that spring from deep faith in God’s promise. Somehow, as the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich describes a sacred future in her visionary text, The Revelations of Divine Love, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’4 Julian believed, and implored her faithful readers to believe, that God wishes to heal people from two kinds of ‘sickness’: impatience and despair.5 There is an urgency in Moses’ circumstances, and he needs his family advocates. In the dialogue between Pharoah’s daughter and the enslaved women – her servant and the two Israelites – faith is the key to resisting despair. In this biblical narrative, Moses’ family are in a moment of transformation, when everything will change not only for Moses but also for the future of God’s people. By reflecting on this, we are reminded that for countless people, in history and in our own time, faith is the foundation for hope and, above all, love.
Isabella, Duchess of Manchester (c.1706–1786), like Pharaoh’s daughter in Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses, painted one hundred years earlier, was a woman of rank within a patriarchal society. In Georgian England, she used her powerful influence to protect children at risk. Isabella showed faith in herself, and in her ability to drive and effect change, despite the male‐dominated society in which she lived.
Isabella Montagu was one of Thomas Coram’s twenty‐one ‘ladies of quality and distinction’ – his earliest supporters.6 She was the fifth to sign his petition on 6 January 1730 calling for the establishment of a foundling hospital in London. The ladies’ petition went to King George II in 1735. Although unsuccessful, it set the precedent for a similar gentlemen’s petition two years later, which led to Coram’s Hospital being granted a Royal Charter in 1739. This portrait was acquired following its loan to the Foundling Museum’s 2018 exhibition, Ladies of Quality and Distinction, which explored the role of women in the foundation and running of the Hospital.
Thomas Coram (1668–1751) had campaigned for seventeen years to set up the Hospital, to save some of the estimated one thousand babies a year abandoned by parents unable to care for them through poverty or other difficulties. Returning from America, where he had run a shipbuilding business, he was appalled by the conditions children faced in London. Coram showed faithfulness in persisting in his long campaign, and trusted that turning to such respectable and high‐ranking female supporters would unlock resistance to the idea. This expression of good faith and mutual respect between the Duchess and Thomas Coram helped to establish the Foundling Hospital, which would care for more than 25,000 children during its two centuries of operation.7
The daughter of John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu, and Mary Churchill, Isabella was a talented amateur artist.8 In 1723, she married her cousin, William Montagu, 2nd Duke of Manchester, whose main estate was Kimbolton Castle, Huntingdonshire. It seems to have been a love match. According to one of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters, ‘Belle is at this instant in the paradisial state of receiving visits every day from a passionate lover, who is her first love, whom she thinks is the finest gentleman in Europe.’9 Unfortunately, the marriage was childless, and Isabella was widowed in 1739. The Hospital’s founding Royal Charter, which bears her husband’s signature, was presented only a few days before he died.
Andrea Soldi’s portrait shows Isabella dressed as Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, childbirth and women. This type of allegorical portrait was popular with the nobility. By including a mythological or biblical reference, these images and their powerful associations gave their subjects an added level of importance and status. It offers a compliment to the Duchess, just as Orazio Gentileschi’s painting honoured his royal patron, Queen Henrietta Maria (1609–1669). The rich costume in Soldi’s portrait allows the artist to show his skill, and the Duchess’s wealth. There is no detail spared in the sumptuous rendering not only of the silk of her clothing and her jewels, but also the fabulous leopard skin draped around her and her two fine hunting dogs.
Like Gentileschi, Andrea Soldi (1703–1771) was an Italian artist whose career brought him to England. Soldi was born in Florence; little is known about his early life. After spending time in the Middle East painting British merchants, Soldi came to London in around 1736 and quickly established himself. He was popular with the nobility and the Duke and Duchess of Manchester were important patrons, though his material success was somewhat short‐lived. Soldi’s extravagance meant that in 1744 he was imprisoned for debt. His finances and reputation never recovered. His work became less fashionable, and, on his death, leading British artist Joshua Reynolds paid for his funeral as he left no legacy.10
Three years into her widowhood, Isabella remarried. Described as a ‘wild Irishman’, her new husband, Edward Hussey (1721–1802), came from a landowning family, and was admired for ‘his warm heart and high sense of honour’. However, he was not her social equal and was some fifteen years her junior. Isabella seems to have retained her faith in love, basing her second marriage, like her first, on genuine affection. Unusually, EDward adopted her surname of Montagu in addition to his own. The couple had two children and, although she ceased to frequent the royal court, Isabella fought fiercely and successfully for her husband to be raised to the peerage as Baron Beaulieu and later Earl of Beaulieu, receiving the Order of the Bath and the post of High Steward of Windsor. This should have ensured the future status of their children and descendants, but sadly neither child outlived their father and his line ended with his own death in 1802.
The importance of faith and faithfulness is deeply embedded in the Foundling Hospital, the institution that the Duchess, through her belief that she could make a difference, was instrumental in bringing into existence. At the heart of the institution is the faith of the foundling’s mother. Each woman made a heart‐breaking decision, giving up her baby because she believed it was the best thing to do, in terms of its life chances. These mothers had faith in the charity, trusting it would honour its promise to care for her child. The charity had faith that its care for the child would be of lasting benefit to all. Coram’s dogged faithfulness in pursuing this cause is mirrored by the faith of leading artists such as William Hogarth and George Frideric Handel. Their creativity, in music and visual art, was greatly influential and could make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children. Inspiring change, and the belief that we can all make a difference, still lies at the heart of the Foundling Museum’s work today.
Haniya, a participant in the Foundling Museum’s Tracing our Tales training programme for care experienced young people, reflects on Andrea Soldi’s Isabella, Duchess of Manchester and what it means to her. She explores Isabella’s life and how she represents the Foundling Museum’s ongoing story of care.
Dressed as Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt, childbirth and women, Isabella Montagu is a powerful emblem of drive and steadfastness. To be standing in front of her painting, hundreds of years later, is an incredible experience for me as a young woman who was in the care system. The efforts of Isabella, Duchess of Manchester, to support the creation of the Foundling Hospital strike a sensitive chord that had until recently remained dormant, under the many layers of my withdrawn heart. I have come to value the strong thread of faithfulness that ran through Montagu’s actions and life. After a decade of receiving not a single signature from men for his petition to establish the Foundling Hospital, Thomas Coram turned to women. In 1729, Coram received his first signature from the Duchess of Somerset, soon followed by the Duchess of Manchester, Isabella. When the petition to the King from a total of twenty‐one ‘Ladies of Quality and Distinction’ failed in 1735, the women’s faith in Coram’s ideal was put to the test. Fortunately, the ambition of these aristocratic ladies paid off as they proceeded to galvanise their husbands into signing a new petition. Isabella Montagu’s beloved first husband, William Montagu, Duke of Manchester, joined her in supporting the cause. The Foundling Hospital was soon granted its Royal Charter, in 1739, and this can be seen displayed in the Foundling Museum complete with the signatures of over 300 male supporters. William died very soon after the Hospital received its charter, and their shared commitment must surely have deepened Isabella’s sense of loss. Isabella Montagu was outstanding in many areas of her life: she was a faithful wife of her first husband, creatively talented as an artist, tenacious and successful as an advocate for her second husband, and a family woman raising three children. As an eldest sister, born to immigrant parents, I sympathise and can recognise myself in her portrait, as a woman of intense steadfastness in her loyalty to those she held dear. The urge to support others while also wanting to nurture a deep love for art is very familiar to me. Feeling such a strong connection to Isabella, as one of the biggest supporters of children in care, means a lot. I trust that she was sincere in her care and I can feel her steady affection through this portrait. Family relationships may have influenced many of these ‘Ladies of Quality and Distinction’. Charlotte Finch, Duchess of Somerset, the first to sign Coram’s petition, had a child who was barely a year old and may have signed from a place of sympathy for the arduous nature of being a mother in a time of extreme material poverty. Isabella and her husband were childless, and this may have opened their hearts to the children of others. Initially, one may look at this painting and see only the Duchess, but I believe that it represents all the women who boldly signed Coram’s petition. It embodies the faith that these women had in each other, in Coram, in their husbands and in the power that such an institution could provide to the abandoned children that had become all too commonplace. Without the ladies’ courageous support for Coram, it is likely the Foundling Hospital would never have come into being, such was the general disdain of the time for the poor and deprived. These women spearheaded a movement of patriotism and humanitarianism. Their faithfulness, public spirit and personal connection translated into a steady stream of support through donations and visits that sustained the reputation and success of the Hospital. The Foundling Museum bears witness to their efforts. It offers me a ticket to travel into this past. To imagine the atrocities and dismal conditions to which many of the poor were subjected is painful. As a person who has experienced being in the care system, I greatly empathise with the pain a mother must feel when parting with their child and I can only be relieved to know that there were such people as Isabella Montagu for these mothers to place their faith in. Placing that trust in the hands of a stranger is no small thing. I can also understand and connect with the feelings of the children, who, separated from their birth families, had to put their faith in foster mothers and nurses, and trust in the Foundling Hospital’s care and planning for their future. When I enter the Foundling Museum, I am enveloped by its rich history. I am absorbed within the building, with its rooms and staircases from the original hospital, and the stories told through its portraits, sculpture, documents and real‐life tokens that connected mother and child. The Museum’s Tracing our Tales traineeship grants care leavers like me a place to connect with similar people and a space to explore their experiences in a cathartic way through art and storytelling. What better place to do that than the very museum which champions the first ever home that proffered its hand to the abandoned? Such an environment feels like a warm hand reaching out to the most vulnerable parts of myself and comforts me in a way I didn’t know I needed. To be aware of the stories of those who came before me feels like looking into what life could have been like for me. I feel I must show faithfulness in making the most of what I have, to do right by them. The efforts of Isabella and the other ladies are still felt in the warmth and walls of the Foundling Museum. The strength of such devotion to helping those in need that I feel from them, from the Foundling Hospital’s story and the people of the museum, reverberates in the chambers of a reserved but hopeful nineteen‐year‐old girl’s heart.
1. The support, generosity and wisdom of colleagues within the National Gallery’s newly established Interfaith Sacred Art Forum has taught me a great deal about the story of Moses’ infancy, and I am grateful to Jewish and Muslim participants: Jacqueline Nicholls, Melissa Raphael, Deborah Kahn‐Harris, Fatimah Ashrif and Mohammed Gamal Abdelnour. All of them have opened my eyes to see this painting and the life of Moses in new ways. (Back to text.)
2. Surah 28.7. (Back to text.)
3. Danya Ruttenberg, Twitter, 15 November 2021: https://mobile.twitter.com/TheRaDR/status/1460379310573998089, accessed 15 March 2022. (Back to text.)
6. Coram made a note of ‘each lady of quality & distinction’ and the date on which they signed his petition, in his pocketbook. London, Foundling Hospital Archive, Thomas Coram, pocketbook, c.1720–39. (Back to text.)
7. The Foundling Hospital closed for residential care in 1954 but continues its work today as a children’s charity, Coram. The Foundling Museum was established as an independent charity and first opened its doors in the grounds of the former Foundling Hospital at 40 Brunswick Square in 2004. (Back to text.)
List of archive references cited
- London, Foundling Hospital Archive, Thomas Coram, pocketbook, c.1720–39
List of references cited
- Ingamells 1978
Ingamells, John, ‘Andrea Soldi: A Check‐List of his Work’, Walpole Society, no. 47, 1978, pp. 1–20
- Julian of Norwich 1901
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, ed. Grace Warrack, London 1901
- Walpole 1762
Walpole, Horace, Anecdotes of English Painting, London 1762
- Wortley Montagu 1757
Wortley Montagu, Mary, Letters of the Right Honourable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, London 1757
About this catalogue
This online born‐digital catalogue accompanies the National Gallery’s virtual exhibition Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart. It is downloadable for free, and any part of the catalogue can be easily accessed or printed. This format maximises the flexible ways in which these texts can be used, enjoyed and shared. Any mistakes or omissions are the editors’ own.
The exhibition has been curated by Ayla Lepine in close collaboration with Susanna Avery‐Quash. Fruits of the Spirit pairs nine paintings from the National Gallery’s collection with nine paintings from regional partner collections from across the UK. The catalogue and virtual exhibition are accompanied by a series of UK‐wide events, a Smartify audioguide and, from November 2022 until April 2023, an in‐person tour through the National Gallery’s collection.
The catalogue has been co‐edited by Ayla Lepine and Susanna Avery‐Quash, with assistance from Isobel Muir as part of her Student Development activity supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The catalogue’s structure places the nine themes of the Fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self‐control – in dialogue with the exhibition’s 18 paintings. Each theme features short essays by a National Gallery curator, a UK partnership museum curator, and an individual or group connected with the regional partner. These community voices provide an exciting and dynamic layer within the project and the catalogue structure. Community contributors include art therapists, artists, refugees, people from Quaker, Jewish and Methodist backgrounds, children, and climate change activists.
Additionally, the London‐based Jewish poet Aviva Dautch was commissioned to write a poem responding to the Fruits of the Spirit themes. Dautch is also a participant in the National Gallery’s new Interfaith Sacred Art Forum, which has been focusing on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. She selected the Fruit of the Spirit’s theme of Faithfulness in relation to Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses. Her words connect this painting to the importance of women in scripture and the significance of Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio’s daughter) as an artist with her own story to tell. Dautch’s poem also makes a profound connection with the Foundling Museum’s contributions to the Faithfulness theme and the biblical account of Moses’ birth. Dautch’s work speaks of faith in uncertain times, the enduring strength of women in painful circumstances, and the enduring qualities of faith, hope and love in every person’s life.
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