At the risk of sounding like an episode of Jeremy Kyle, I’m rather interested in illegitimate children today. May I just add this is entirely focused on art, I don’t need to know about anyone’s personal life, thank you very much. I have always found the pictures of fallen women fascinating, the way they reflect on the moral position of society at the time, and I suppose this is just an extension of the process of 'falling'. However, pictures of women with their illegitimate offspring are somewhat rarer than pictures of them being led astray by wicked cads.
Everyone loves a wicked cad. He might be paying for your St John’s Wood house, as in The Awakening Conscience or trying to tempt you with a death’s head hawk moth (The Hireling Shepherd), although it would take a bit more than a moth to ruin me, thank you very much. More often than not, you tend to see a fallen woman on her own as in Thoughts of the Past, as if her misdeeds have very little to do with a gentleman, and certainly she seems to pay for her 'crimes' on her own, hence the variety of 'drowned prostitute' pieces that were produced at the time.
|Past and Present I (1858) Augustus Egg|
|Past and Present III (1858) Augustus Egg|
|The Outcast (1851) Richard Redgrave|
This is equally true of illegitimate baby pictures. If you consider Past and Present by Augustus Egg, the erring wife is prostrate at the feet of her husband, and by the third picture in the series, he has tossed her out to starve in the street with her baby. There is no hint that she could go to the father of the child, the partner in her deceit, and make him take equal responsibility for the mess they have made. Critics at the time assumed the little baby, barely seen in the third picture, was already dead or dying, which is a harsh leap of narrative, although it isn’t out of the question that neither mother or baby would survive long under a bridge. Similarly, Redgraves’ The Outcast shows a young woman and her child being thrown from the respectable family home. Good job too, down with that sort of thing etc etc. If she’s lucky, she’ll get to die in the snow, as is the right and proper thing to do.
|Retribution (1854) J E Millais|
|Take Your Son, Sir! (1857) F M Brown|
Every so often you’ll see a painting of a woman attempting to bring a man’s responsibilities to his notice. Interestingly, the women who attempt this tend to be of a lower social class than their seducers, for example Millais’ Retribution, where a man is confronted with his ‘other’ family, much to the horror of his wife. It is a very uncertain painting, but I like the idea that Take Your Son, Sir by Ford Madox Brown is a woman presenting a man with his illegitimate son in a sort of pseudo-religious Madonna and child moment. When these confrontations take places, it seems to be a matter of action by the mothers, possibly desperation, never the other way round, never the man seeking out his bastard child.
Imagine my intrigue when I came across The Grandfather’s Visit by Robert Dowling, from 1865. While flicking through the rather amazing Love and Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria catalogue from the Art Gallery of South Australia (ISBN: 9780730830764 - I thoroughly recommend it, a fabulously interesting book with amazing reproductions), I briefly looked at this rather traditional scene of an old man holding up a small baby while his womenfolk look on. How lovely. Hang on….
|The Grandfather's Visit (1865) Robert Dowling|
The last sentence of the description caught my eye: ‘The father is nowhere to be seen’. Fair enough, maybe he’s at work. But if his parents are there, surely the proud Daddy would be present? Well, maybe they are her parents – but then why does it say only The Grandfather’s Visit, why not the Grandparents’ visit ? Well, maybe it is her mother and his father. So where is Grandma’s wedding ring ?
Mmmm, I smell a scandal, and it smells delicious. Consider the following details: Grandpa is quite well to do, as his top hat and scarf look expensive. However, his things are just discarded on the floor as if he was distracted, distressed, or there isn’t a table to put them on. We do not see his expression; he is the focus of the title, this is his moment to embrace his grandchild and we do not know what he is thinking or feeling, only the reflection of it in the faces of the women. The old woman who stands behind holds a handkerchief; is it for her or for the younger woman? Was she expecting tears? She looks respectable, but we specifically see her left hand and there is no ring. Is she a nurse? It’s hard to see who exactly she is looking at and her expression is cryptic. She is there for the younger woman, her hand resting by her. The young woman is wrapped in shawls and watches peacefully as the old man awkwardly holds the rather bemused looking infant. The light falls on her and she seems to look relieved if anything, as if she has been vindicated. I would suggest that the young woman is hopeful of some support from the Grandfather as she sits in her dark room with only two chairs (that’s why Granny can’t sit down) and no table to put your hat on. Oh, the shame. Yet, the old man is there, which has to mark some sort of hope for the future, suggested by the light that is shining in on the mother.
If this interpretation is true, then it is a bit of a rarity in art of this time, the fallen woman supported and accepted. I hope this is what Dowling intended, but if it was, I doubt he told anyone…