A Shared Experience

Study for birth painting

In 1992 Ghislaine Howard was commissioned by Manchester City Art Galleries to spend four months as artist-in-residence at St Mary's Hospital maternity unit in Manchester, England.

The resulting exhibition, A Shared Experience, was shown at Manchester City Art Gallery in 1993 and at the Wellcome Foundation in London in 1994.

Here you can read Ghislaine Howard's foreword to the exhibition catalogue,  the catalogue notes by David Peters Corbett, and extracts from Ghislaine Howard's journal of the residency which were published in art review in March 1994.

Reviews of the exhibition by Robert Clark in the Guardian and Joan Crossley in Women's Art are reproduced in the critical response page.

A Shared Experience

Catalogue foreword by Ghislaine Howard

The Maternity Unit is an extraordinary institution: it is here that the experience takes place that we have all shared - our naked entry into the world. Focused here are so many emotions and so many human situations. The routine of waiting in the ante-natal clinic; the drama, pain and anxiety of the birth itself, and later, on the wards, the sense of fellowship between mothers and staff and the developing relationships between mothers, their partners and the new- born child. 

The hospital is a place where the fragility as well as the the urgency of life can be keenly felt, where for some the struggle for life may be hard. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the highly technological atmosphere of the Special Baby Unit where the skill and devotion of the staff are at their most visible. 

I have concentrated on the sense of human drama that I have experienced in the hospital during my four month residency, focusing on the expressive potential of the human body, finding emotional power not only in the faces of the protagonists but also in their hands, backs or arms. 

I am aware that depictions of the events shown in these paintings and drawings are rare in western art. It is a salutary thought that an experience that all humans have shared is so rarely seen in art galleries. 

Immediately after the births of my own two children I realised the irony that I, the mother, was the only one of those present not to have witnessed the event. As an artist my work is centred on my own experiences and it was natural that I should chart the development of my family. This residency has allowed me to recapture something of my own history. 

It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that, above all, it has been my gender that has allowed me access to the scenes interpreted here and I feel privileged that, as a woman, I have been able to make visible what previously has been, to some degree, invisible. 

The comparatively short time I have spent in the hospital has meant, of necessity, that I have had to work quickly, at the very pace of the activities I have depicted and I have kept that sense of urgency and immediacy in the way that I approached the work. I hope that this exhibition will convey something of our vulnerability, our resilience, but above all of our common humanity. 

I would like to thank the medical and administrative staff at St Mary's Hospital, those at Manchester City Art Galleries and Hospital Arts who have all helped me bring this project to fruition. I would like to dedicate the exhibition to the staff, mothers, partners and children whose wholehearted participation has made this event possible.

Ante-natal examination 1993
Charcoal on paper
71cm x 61cm
28" x 24"
Ante-natal examination 2 1993
Charcoal on paper
71cm x 61cm
28" x 24"

A Shared Experience

Catalogue notes by David Peters Corbett

Over a period of four months from October 1992 to January 1993 Ghislaine Howard was artist in residence at St Mary's Hospital, Manchester. The residency, which was the first of its kind, gave her a unique opportunity to observe and record the work of a busy Maternity Unit. The result is a powerful series of works in several media which describe the experience of hospital birth with an illuminating visual intelligence and an unsentimental compassion that includes the medical teams and the partners as well as the mothers and babies.

Anybody who has spent any time at all in hospital knows that it is a world at one remove from our normal lives. Only in hospital do our bodies become so public. They are probed, examined and exposed in pain and distress; they are revealed and gazed at, not with the gaze of intimacy but as a job of work to be done. In hospital we must surrender the benefits of our normal selves and everything that they bring by way of status or personality or accustomed behaviour.

Where the body is concerned these things are of little use as models of conduct, and for the duration of our stay the body is what we are. For the mother-to-be this situation is particularly acute. She means to be active, but she must be passive; she is not ill, but she must submit to treatment; she is not a patient, everybody tells her so, but in practice she is indistinguishable from one.
Howard sees this disconcerting aspect of the experience clearly and she powerfully describes it and the successive stages of giving birth. This is where her achievement lies. The artist who attempts to describe the experience of birth, like the prospective mother, has no model to follow. Art has not attended to this universal event. In the work exhibited here Howard has achieved an understanding and description of birth that compels our attention through its forthrightness and authenticity.

Dressing the new child
Oil on canvas
46cm x 61cm
18" x 24"

In these paintings and drawings the women who are mothers-to-be live through the consequences of becoming, temporarily, only their bodies and of expecting a new role, that of mother, which is promised them only after the pregnancy and birth are over. It is not for nothing that the pregnant are said to be "expecting", they are in a limbo until their gravid potential is realised.

First of all, they wait. They lie or sit, expecting the event that will transform them from potential to actuality and usefulness, for the presence of the other life that they long for or, sometimes, that they fear or do not want. Then they are inspected, their full bellies are felt or listened to to check on the life within.

The pictures that describe this experience contrast the limbo of "expecting" with the continuing activities of others. A woman gazes partly stoically, partly dreamily at the ceiling as her stomach is palpated, another turns her head away as if to signal the irrelevance of the visitors who hover above her bed. The world continues to turn but the secret of its revolution, the separate but identical pairing of the baby who has not yet arrived and the mother who carries her, are still outside time, still waiting.

This static period eventually comes to an end. It gives way to a rush of activity, but for the mother this stage, like the last, is something to be borne. The body closes in on itself: a drawing shows a woman in convulsive movement, her legs raised and face grimacing with pain; a painting describes a woman doubled over in tense exhaustion as she waits for the epidural anaesthetic; others are shown as they inhale a mixture of gas and air or are lifted onto the theatre trolley, unconscious and wrapped in sheeting or the surgical gown.

The burden of these things seems to pass finally with delivery when the waiting blossoms, as in the big canvas which is the centrepiece of the exhibition, into the birth of a child. This climactic moment is treated with a deliberate forthrightness that acknowledges its centrality. At this moment the emphasis on the body is concentrated into one event of meaningfulness and pain.

Neither here nor in the painting of the breech birth which accompanies it is the emergence of the new life presented as straightforwardly liberating. The woman still has to suffer and still has to be tended, as she has been up till then, by the professional lives that are focused around hers. The climactic moment is still a moment of the body, first the mother's, then the child's, as the baby is raised up to be checked, its limbs and organs probed for abnormalities and its air passages cleared. The child is then shown to its mother, or, in another set of circumstances, given air or taken to be placed in the incubator.

Mother and child on the ward 1993
oil on canvas
76cm x 102cm

The final section of the series examines the aftermath of the birth, the first minutes for the mother and baby of the rest of their lives. In several paintings the mother holds her child, initiating that process called bonding. In another a couple comfort each other in an embrace, hinting at a tragedy, the loss of a child and of what was expected from this pregnancy. 
The woman who looks away from her visitors seems, in the process of transferal from the drawing which is also shown here, to have lost the emphatic roundness of her belly which is now dissolved into the nightdress. Her unwillingness to confront her friends may have a tragic meaning.

Birth painting 1993
Oil on canvas
152cm x 183cm
60" x 72"

In the canvas which depicts the moment of birth the woman, accompanied by her partner at top left, is surrounded by a team of medical staff. Elsewhere the bodies of the mothers-to-be are supervised as they undergo the medical procedures which attend birth; bodies are raised and lowered, are supported by stirrups for a breech delivery, lie in surgical boots as the surgeon delicately swabs antispetic in a shallow arc onto the deeper arc of the belly of a woman about to undergo a Caesarean section.

But these procedures are not conducted by automata. Howard shows us the medical staff embedded in the circumstances of the delivery. The faces we can read are intent, the hands that figure repeatedly in the pictures are competent, professional, steady, but also, as in the painting of the midwife palpating the mother or the doctor caring for a baby in the incubator, they are gentle. The hands that reach into the painting from all sides in the central birth scene are entirely confident in the job they are doing, but also tender, sympathetic. They are enabling, not forcing, the birth.
Throughout the drawings and paintings in the exhibition there is a theme of faces and the absence or concealment of faces. On the one hand Howard compels us to recognise and respond to expressions which communicate strongly; on the other, most of the faces in the work we cannot see.

There is an interplay between the expressions that can be read out of the smudged, apparently rapid notation, and the non-expressions of all those faces turned away or shielded for us: faces concealed by the surgical mask, by an embrace or by the medical personnel who cluster round, obscured by a preoccupation which seems to exclude us (with a job of work to be done, with the baby in the mother's arms), or cut off by the picture frame or by unconsciousness.

Newly delivered mother 1993
oil on canvas
 48" x 30"

In the one painting where there might be a direct meeting of glances between the spectator and the subject, the woman seems entirely separate within the privacy of her experience and her face is obscured by the oxygen mask strapped over nose and mouth.

Ghislaine Howard's work exhibited here is about a subject that art has not dealt with before, the nature of hospital birth. It is a powerful and compelling achievement.

David Peters Corbett

art review, March 1994

An artist's diary

'A nurse is in attendance, like a figure from Giotto, arms outstretched, waiting to receive the child into a green cloth'

GHISLAINE HOWARD was artist-in-residence at St Mary's Hospital maternity unit for four months in 1992. Extracts from the journal she kept follow.

Couple during labour
oil on canvas
36" x 36"

October 1

My daughter was born here five years ago, so I arrive for my first day as artist-in-residence with mixed feelings of familiarity and displacement. There is the same walk to the doors of the ante-natal clinic, the same queue of women waiting. The maternity unit is an extraordinary institution: it is here the experience takes place that we have all shared - our naked entry into the world.

a selection of comments from the visitors' book at Manchester City Art Gallery
I talk to some women in the corridor waiting to be seen by doctors, but these initial approaches are very difficult. If I am to work with any patient she must sign a consent form, which instantly formalises everything but is a necessary legal precaution. Most women immediately anticipate an invasion of their privacy and look away.

I approach a young woman and her partner. She smiles, so I sit down and explain who I am. It is her first visit and she agrees to allow me through with her. She is nervous and her English is not very good. The doctor is pleasant but brisk - not an easy atmosphere; I must learn to make relationships with both sides. A few rapid drawings of the examination result. This first contact reveals in a very clear way the scale of the task ahead.

How right and fitting that women's experience of birth - right or wrong - good or bad - should be recorded in this way. Wonderful, wonderful pictures!
October 2

Going to the hospital shop I meet E - she has had her baby and I go up to the ward with her. She is easy with me and her child, a beautiful, smooth, brown baby, is sleepy with jaundice. We talk and I make drawings as she feeds her child. I am finding that the problems of fitting into this huge institution resolve themselves through contact with individuals.

oil on canvas
40" x 50"
I know now what my mother went through. It looks painful and although you have empathised well through your paintings you have put me off childbirth.
Draw and photograph JE, who is a little uneasy at first. Very dark skin, hair drawn back, heavily laden body, she wears a mint-green dressing gown of thin material which falls and enfolds her huge body eloquently. Her pose is archetypal. She has three weeks to wait here and constantly worries about her family back home. I wish you'd been there with me at my Caesarian 17 year ago.

Study for birth painting no 1
charcoal on paper
30" x  23"

October 4

I start to look at the drawings and photographs I've taken and begin to focus on the hands and the atmosphere of intense concentration and professionalism that pervades the hospital - hands, arms and backs are as expressive as faces.

October 7

I have been working on some small paintings of E and her baby from the sketches I made earlier. They are tender and intimate. Mothers and children do fall into the clichéd poses of art history as much as they do unusual ones. Still focussing closely on hands and child. How immersed one can become in contemplation of these tiny creatures.

Would be interested to know how you produced these extremely powerful pictures in the midst of such (often) fraught activiity

Wonder, normality, caring and compassion - a rare combination in paintings. Thankyou for the woman's point of view. Courageous!

I arrive in the preparation room of the delivery unit where D is having twins by caesarian section. The doctors and patient have consented to my presence and I feel exhilarated and also scared stiff that I might faint. As soon as the anaesthetist, who is slightly suspicious of me, starts to work, I begin to draw and take photographs, which is the only way I can cope with and make sense of what is happening. I make quick, instinctive decisions: to get as near as possible to the table, to try to get behind D's head to see something of her view point. What I need to recreate is the experience as it is for the woman and her partner, what she sees when her baby is held up for the first time. 

Birth painting no 2
oil on canvas
60" x 72"

Interesting, provoking, alarming, emotional and of-putting all at once. However, a very moving portrayal of an everyday event that social taboos prevent us from knowing the reality of.
As things commence my rapid drawings become ever more notational and in between jotting I take shots - the camera is indispensable. A nurse is in attendance, like a figure from Giotto, arms outstretched, waiting to receive the child into a green cloth. Despite the bright light, my own sense of the colours is formed by the tones of the flesh and the green robes of the medical staff. A truly uplifting experience. I won't forget these drawings in a hurry.

Birth painting no 3
oil on canvas
60" x 60"

October 25

The work in the studio is beginning to take off. I've worked on some large drawings of the caesarian preliminaries. My mind is buzzing with images, so I'm working fast at first on large rapid, inky watercolours whilst the experience is fresh. I am painting with a strong sense of urgency; I have to keep reminding myself that I don't have to do everything immediately.

Vivid, realistic, very moving. A far cry from the cosy picture of motherhood we're so often conned into accepting. This should be a permanent exhibition.
Working on a birth painting in the studio, I have sheaves of rapid drawings with strong lines and large shapes. The sensations and memories are still immediate. The central figure of the woman dominates, the hands of the attendants reach inwards towards the centre of the painting. I draw in the major lines with scene painter's charcoal, making decisions as I work and changing things intuitively. For me, this initial onslaught on the canvas is a furious and concentrated affair - some areas of focus are intensely worked, in others the paint is thin. 
Screaming infant 1993
Oil on board
61cm x 46cm
24" x 18"
Very emotional pictures - reminds me of when my mother had given birth to my sisters. These pictures make me all the more determined to become an artist.
I am trying to concentrate on the sense of human drama that I am experiencing in the hospital and focus on the expressive potential of the human body.

It is extraordinary to be working on an image for which I can think of no artistic precedent and I feel a weight of responsibility together with a strong sense of privilege.

As an artist my work is concentrated on my own experiences and it was natural that I should chart the development of my own family. Immediately after the birth of my own two children I realised the irony that I, the mother, was the only one of those present not to have witnessed the event. The residency has allowed me to recapture something of my own history.

Have returned for a 2nd visit to confirm the impressions of the 1st: still a very powerful and positive affirmation. Students of mine who have also visited were also moved.

  • Reviews of the exhibition, by Robert Clark in the Guardian and Joan Crossley in Women's Art, are reproduced in the critical response page.
Ghislaine Howard Studio Gallery

Ghislaine's blog  


365 daily images

Be inspired!



Ghislaine Howard Studio Gallery



Online gallery

A Shared Experience


Parent and child



The Empty Tomb

The geriatric unit

The intimate and the domestic

The maternity unit

The prison

The St Anthony Cycle

The Stations of the Cross

The theatre

The Visitation


Working methods



Site info