The Fall­en Woman is a mul­ti-media exhi­bi­tion which exam­ines the Vic­to­ri­an atti­tudes to fall­en women and their babies, with a sound­scape by Steve Lewin­son. I talk to the show’s cura­tor, Pro­fes­sor Lyn­da Nead, the Pevs­ner Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry of Art at Birk­beck, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don, about the sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship between art and sound.

A new exhi­bi­tion run­ning from 25th Sep­tem­ber to 3rd Jan­u­ary offers vis­i­tors the chance to learn more about the plight of fall­en women in the Vic­to­ri­an age, those women who arrived at the Foundling Hos­pi­tal to give up their babies into the care of the char­i­ty. Inevitably, these women told tales of rape, vio­lence, pover­ty. The exhi­bi­tion is accom­pa­nied by a pow­er­ful sound­scape con­ceived by Steve Lewin­son, a musi­cian, pro­duc­er, song­writer, com­pos­er and musi­cal direc­tor who has per­formed with many artists such as Sim­ply Red and George Michael – and is about to go on tour with Sim­ply Red.

Henry Nelson ONeil, A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris, 1855 (c) The Foundling Museum
Hen­ry Nel­son O’Neil, A Moth­er Deposit­ing Her Child at the Foundling Hos­pi­tal in Paris, 1855 © The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Muse­um in Brunswick Square is built on the site of the orig­i­nal Foundling Hos­pi­tal, and stands today as a tes­ta­ment to the thou­sands of chil­dren who were brought there dur­ing the Vic­to­ri­an era. Each moth­er arrived at the hos­pi­tal with her baby for an inter­view in which her peti­tion was writ­ten down, and her suit­abil­i­ty con­sid­ered. These peti­tions, plus a selec­tion of art­works from the peri­od, form much of the mate­r­i­al which will be on show.

Once you had put the idea of the exhi­bi­tion in motion, how did you arrive at the idea for the soundscape?

I’ve known Steve Lewin­son for a long time. We orig­i­nal­ly met through going box­ing togeth­er at a local gym. We have often had con­ver­sa­tions about the rela­tion­ship between dif­fer­ent media, such as art and music. When I began curat­ing The Fall­en Woman, I almost always imag­ined some form of sound would accom­pa­ny it.

How did you devel­op this idea?

The Foundling Muse­um holds an incred­i­ble archive of the forms that the unmar­ried moth­ers filled in when they took their babies to the hos­pi­tal. Through these, the women tell their sto­ries, about how they came to be preg­nant. They are very per­son­al, very mov­ing and pow­er­ful sto­ries. I had this image of the exhi­bi­tion – that some­how I want­ed to use sound to make the expe­ri­ence uncom­fort­able, as if it was haunt­ed in some way by these wom­en’s voices.

How has the sound­scape been constructed? 

Frag­ments of the tales are read out. We’ve been lucky in this respect, we’ve had some fan­tas­tic actors and actress­es take part in the project and read parts of the peti­tions: Max­ine Peake, Adri­an Dun­bar and Mar­i­anne Jean-Bap­tiste have all con­tributed. The peti­tions are treat­ed by Steve almost as if they are music notes. He has made phras­es into riffs, which he repeats, plays at dif­fer­ent vol­umes and stretch­es the words out. The inten­tion is for it to be quite dis­turb­ing. In addi­tion, because these are peti­tions which were writ­ten down, Steve worked with the sound of a pen scratch­ing on rough paper which is almost like a bass line.

Is it to add emotion?

No, it’s not real­ly to add emo­tion, it is to rather to make this more than just an easy and pleas­ant exhibiton of Vic­to­ri­an art. So peo­ple don’t just think, ‘Oh those sil­ly old Vic­to­ri­ans, it’s not like that now’. The inten­tion was to upset the atmos­phere. I know that’s not gen­er­al­ly what you want vis­i­tors to do, but I just did­n’t want it to be as com­fort­able as it could oth­er­wise be.

There’s a long-held atti­tude (admit­ted­ly which is now chang­ing) that Vic­to­ri­an art is over-sen­ti­men­tal. Was this in the back of your mind when you curat­ed The Fall­en Woman? 

Total­ly. And even when the sub­ject is some­thing gen­uine­ly sad, we just think it’s sen­ti­men­tal. It’s almost too easy to dis­miss the exhi­bi­tion on those terms. Which is why I thought the only thing that could dis­turb it in some way is sound. Sound enters into the space that the view­er is in, and if it is some­thing whis­pered and you have to strain to hear things, it does dis­rupt things a lit­tle bit.

The Fall­en Woman exhi­bi­tion runs from 25th Sep­tem­ber till 3rd Jan­u­ary 2016.

The Foundling Muse­um, 40 Brunswick Square, Lon­don WC1N 1AZ, 25th Sep­tem­ber to 3rd January

Images reproduced with thanks to the Foundling Museum

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