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Basic Instincts: Love, Passion and Violence in the Art of Joseph Highmore

Basic Instincts: Love, Passion and Violence in the Art of Joseph Highmore


The first major publication dedicated to the important 18th-century British artist Joseph Highmore, whose works address themes ranging from love, friendship and  motherhood, to abuse, abandonment, infant death and murder. His extraordinary painting The Angel of Mercy, the centrepiece of this book, is one of the most controversial images in 18th-century British art.


Published to coincide with the exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London, this fascinating book will re-introduce Joseph Highmore (1692–1780), an artist of status and substance in his day, who is now largely unknown. It takes as its focus Highmore’s small oil painting known as The Angel of Mercy (1746, Yale), one of the most shocking and controversial images in 18th-century British art. 


The painting depicts a woman in fashionable mid-18th-century dress strangling the infant lying on her lap. A cloaked, barefooted figure cowers to the right as an angel intervenes, pointing towards the Foundling Hospital, the recently built refuge for abandoned infants, in the distance. The image attempts to address one of the most disturbing aspects of the Foundling Hospital story – certainly a subject that many (now as then) would consider beyond depiction. But if any artist of the period had attempted such a subject it would surely be William Hogarth, not the portrait painter Joseph Highmore? In fact, the painting was attributed to Hogarth for almost two centuries, until its reattribution in the 1990s. Even so, it is surprising that despite the wealth of scholarship associated with Hogarth and the ‘modern moral subject’ of the 1730s and 1740s, The Angel of Mercy has received little attention until now. The book (and exhibition) seeks to address this, while encouraging greater interest in, and appreciation for, this significant British artist.


Highmore expert, Jacqueline Riding, will set this extraordinary painting within the context of the artist’s life and work, as well as broader historical and artistic contexts. This will include exploration of superb examples of Highmore’s portraiture, such as his complex, monumental group portrait The Family of Sir Eldred Lancelot Lee and the exquisite small-scale ‘conversations’ The Vigor Family and The Artist and his Family, juxtaposed with analysis of key subject paintings, including the Foundling Museum’s Hagar and Ishmael and Highmore’s ‘Pamela’ series, inspired by Samuel Richardson’s bestselling novel. Collectively they tackle relevant and highly contentious issues around the status and care of women and children, master/servant relations, motherhood, abuse, abandonment, infant death and murder.

  • Jacqueline Riding

    29 SEPTEMBER 2017 (USA Nov)

    ISBN 978 1 911300 28 1

    Paperback, 260 x 216 mm

    128 pages, 80 colour illus.

  • Exhibition

    The Foundling Museum, London
    29 September 2017 - 7 January 2018

  • In the press

    "Especially welcome … a thoughtful book … a major contribution."
    The Burlington 


    "Brilliant … a deeply satisfying book at many levels [and] a model for rethinking what a traditional monographic approach might look like within our own moment of art historical scholarship and publishing."


    “Highmore’s works include many paintings showing his sympathetic approach to the plight of powerless women ... [This is] the first major publication of his work.” —Guardian 


    "[Basic Instincts] brings Joseph Highmore out of the shadows." —Apollo


    “Highmore (1692–1780) was much more than just a society painter ... his connection with the Foundling Hospital alerted him to the inequalities and injustices of his time and to the plight of women and children at the mercy of men who always held the keys ... The Angel of Mercy still has the power to shock and, sadly, tells a very modern story.” —The Spectator 


    "Lifts the veil on the darker aspects of love and sex in Georgian London … this is the first major exhibition of Highmore's work for more than 50 years and it brings the artist out of the shadow of William Hogarth." —Country Life 


    "Revealing and intriguing … breaks new ground in many ways … Joseph Highmore has been drawn out of obscurity for good." —British Society for 18th Century Studies 


    “It is the commonality between high and low that Basic Instincts reveals so well. We aren’t as divided as we think. Highmore scratches away at the veneer of respectability that coats the art of his age, and finds darkness beneath. Regardless of position, everyone has the same capacity for bad behaviour. And unfortunately, as Highmore shows, all too often women bore the brunt of this behaviour.”—Rake's Digress


    "The protagonist of The Angel of Mercy is one of the many women painted by portraitist Joseph Highmore, the artist that, with his powerful art, brought feminine vulnerability to the canvas, as well as exploring the attitudes during the Georgian era towards love, sexuality and desire … But Joseph Highmore ... was also a painter of tender portraits, depicting mothers, friends, children and relatives, a testimony to his versatile talent." —Samantha De Martin,

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