In 1622, Elizabeth Joscelin wrote a letter to her unborn child. This was fairly common practice in Elizabethan England; pregnant women were encouraged to write ‘mother’s legacy’ texts in case they did not survive the birth. ‘It may… appear strange to thee to receyue theas lines from a mother that dyed when thou weart born,’ she wrote. Her daughter Theodora was born on 12 October 1622, and following a violent fever Elizabeth died nine days later.
Her letter — which urged her child to pray, avoid temptation and be charitable — was discovered posthumously in her writing desk and published in 1624 by an Anglican clergyman called Thomas Goad. The Mothers Legacie, To her Vnborne Childe became a hugely popular book. It was reprinted seven times in the decade following its publication, with the final edition appearing in 1894.
The original manuscript is included in the Foundling Museum’s new exhibition Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media which brings together a modest but intriguing selection of portraits, texts and items of clothing in order to examine how women — the show looks predominantly at British women — have chosen to be depicted during pregnancy over the past 500 years. It is a sweet show in many ways, although it is sobering to realise that for most of history, women were expected to prepare for death as part of their preparations for birth.
But pregnancy was also considered an everyday part of life. Until the late 19th century, a woman could expect to bear between six to eight children, if all went well. Pregnancy was seen as a transient phase and most artists just sketched around the issue. In 1772, Theresa Robinson sat for Joshua Reynolds while expecting. ‘You may think her situation may make this an improper time to have her sit, but I assure you she never looked better nor half so fat in the face,’ wrote her sister Anne. Reynolds disagreed and instead edited out her pregnancy using some carefully placed drapery. ‘She is at a point of time when ladies don’t look at the best,’ he said.
For centuries, pregnancy was understood within a religious setting and in particular, within the context of the Visitation, when the Virgin Mary goes to see her older cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the future John the Baptist. Images of this scene became popular devotional objects, with the women standing bump to bump. Few survived the Reformation, however, and the show then whizzes forward to Tudor times, when pregnancy portraits became more common.
We see Cecily Heron, Sir Thomas More’s youngest daughter, in a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger, the lacing of her dress loosened to accommodate her growing body. Mary Tudor stares out at us, painted by Anthonis Mor at a point when she was convinced she was with child, but was in fact experiencing a phantom pregnancy. And there’s Mildred Cooke, the wife of William Cecil, painted by Hans Eworth, with her bump protruding outwards and a scowl etched on to her face.
As the curator Karen Hearn points out in her book about the show (it is a useful companion; the information provided on the walls is somewhat scant), while it may seem paradoxical that pregnancy portraiture proliferated under Elizabeth I’s virginal reign, the likelihood is that it reflected a degree of anxiety about the succession to the throne. Pregnancy then — as now — was as much a political, public affair as it was a private one. As pressure began to mount on Elizabeth to marry, in 1562, at the age of 30, she was made to sit through a performance of the play Gorboduc, which described the calamity that would befall a country if a monarch did not have an obvious heir.
For women who wanted to keep their pregnancies private, their choice of clothing could provide some cover. Included in the exhibition is a pair of 17th-century pregnancy ‘stays’, made of linen, silk, leather and ribbon. There is also a Russian ‘sarafan’ dress that belonged to George IV’s daughter Princess Charlotte, which she wore when she sat for her portrait in 1817. Her tale is another tragic one: she delivered a stillborn son, then died shortly afterwards.
Medical advances have meant that childbirth has become, if not exactly easy, less of a death sentence. The Scottish doctor William Hunter is to thank for establishing obstetrics as an accepted branch of medicine during the 18th century. On display is a copperplate image from his large-scale study of the female body. It shows in graphic detail a pregnant woman’s torso dissected from her vulva up to her womb.
The Georgian satirists provide more cheering fare. In 1793, Isaac Cruikshank’s etching ‘Frailties of Fashion’ lampooned the peculiar vogue that took hold of polite society for wearing artificial bumps. And in ‘Dido, in Despair!’, James Gillray poked fun at Emma Hamilton, then pregnant with Admiral Nelson’s child.
She’s not the only pregnant mistress included in the show. Barbara Villiers, Charles II’s mistress, also makes an appearance. In a portrait by the Dutch artist Peter Lely, she has brazenly cast herself as a rosy-cheeked Virgin Mary.
As families started to shrink in size during the 20th century, pregnancy became more of an event worth recording, often by the women themselves. There are some lovely portraits included, although the show is somewhat reliant on reproductions of the original works. It’s forgivable, though, because the subject matter is compelling enough to warrant a few facsimiles. Lucian Freud’s ‘Girl with Roses’ harks back to the portrait of Mary Tudor, while James Cowie’s self-portrait with his wife Nancy is melancholic in tone, alluding to the fact she died from tuberculosis a year after giving birth. Ghislaine Howard’s ‘Pregnant self-portrait’ from 1984 captures the weary, exhausted phase of late pregnancy that many women will recognise.
Then come the bellies. When Tina Brown put a naked, heavily pregnant Demi Moore on the August 1991 cover of Vanity Fair, it was genuinely radical. Smartphones have now made it easy to photograph our bodies. Beyoncé’s elaborate Instagram post from 2017, when she announced that she and her husband Jay Z were expecting twins, may have ‘broken the internet’ but it is hardly unusual to see a pregnant body these days.
Pregnancy is again a public spectacle, with women taking an interest in how their swelling bodies are represented. Nevertheless, childbirth is not without its risks. In 2017, a heavily pregnant Serena Williams appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, looking powerful and in control. But as she later revealed, she almost died after the birth of her daughter Olympia. Pregnancy forces women to confront mortality — and no amount of paint, drapery or airbrushing can conceal this reality.
Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media is at the Foundling Museum until 26 April.