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 (c) 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

What do you think?