30.03.2015
14:54

Foundling Museum

Address:

40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ

Phone:

020-7841 3600

Website:

www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk

Opening times:

Tues–Sat 10:00–17:00; Sun 11:00–17:00

How to get there:

Tube: Russell Square/King’s Cross

Entry fee:

Admission charge

Additional information:

Café and shop

The Foundling Museum is a remarkable institution which records the foundation, history and continuing work of the Foundling Hospital, a charitable home for illegitimate children established in 1739 by Captain Thomas Coram (1668–1751). A humble Dorset man, Coram was a master mariner who had arrived back from the American colonies to be appalled by the plight of the abandoned, orphaned and destitute children on the streets of London. In 1739, after 17 years of relentless campaigning among the titled, wealthy and influential, Coram persuaded George II to grant a Royal Charter to open ‘A Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children’. An entirely secular organisation, the first of its kind, it was funded through private donations and subscription.

History of the Hospital

The Hospital opened in 1741, in temporary premises in Hatton Garden. On its first day it was open for the receipt of children until full, 18 boys and 12 girls being accepted. All Foundling children were baptised on admission. The first child was named Thomas Coram, and the first girl Eunice Coram, after Captain Coram’s wife, who had died in 1740.

In 1742 the foundation stone of the Hospital’s permanent buildings was laid in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, present-day Coram Fields. Consisting of three wings around a courtyard—the west wing for boys, the Governor’s Court Room and a Picture Gallery, the east wing for girls, and a central chapel—the Hospital was designed by Theodore Jacobsen, an amateur architect and one of the Hospital’s governors. The chapel was begun in 1747. In 1749 Handel, who became a Hospital governor, conducted a concert there to raise funds for its completion, for which he composed the Foundling Hospital Anthem. Fundraising musical concerts became a feature of the Hospital’s calendar, with Handel conducting annual performances of the Messiah. A terracotta bust of him by Roubiliac is in the collection.

Further social fundraising events included ticket sales for Ladies’ Breakfasts, and opportunities to visit the Hospital, admire its buildings, inspect the children and view its art collection. The latter was an important component of the Hospital. The ornate Governor’s Court Room and Picture Gallery contained fine paintings and works of art by leading contemporary British artists, principally Hogarth and his circle, presented to the Hospital from 1746, many of which remain in the museum today. In return for their philanthropy, the Hospital offered to artists a means by which to promote the talents of the native school through public exhibition of their work (the Foundling offered the first public exhibition space in the country). A number of artists were elected governors, and these formed a separate committee which met annually, ‘to consider of what further Ornaments may be added to the Hospital’.

Coram, a bluff and forthright man, was ousted from the Board of Governors soon after the Hospital’s foundation. He made frequent visits to the Hospital however, was godfather to over 20 Foundlings, and was buried under the altar of the chapel. In 1926 the Governors decided to move the Hospital to the cleaner air of the country, first to Redhill, then to Berkhamsted. The original building was sadly demolished, but several of the finer rooms were carefully salvaged and re-erected within the Hospital’s new headquarters at 40 Brunswick Square, completed in 1938. Opposite the new building the Hospital’s old site, Coram Fields, became a playground for children. In 1953 the Hospital ceased to operate as a school for abandoned children, and the policy of placing children in foster homes was adopted in its place. The charity was renamed the Thomas Coram Foundation; in 1999 it became Coram Family, its headquarters in the building adjoining the museum. The museum and its collections became a separate museum trust in 1998, and after an extensive renovation programme opened as the Foundling Museum in 2004.

 

The Building and its Exhibits

On the ground floor is the exhibition Coram’s Children, which explains the origins and history of the Foundling Hospital, and the social conditions of 18th-century London. The Hospital originally had official appointment days for receiving children, with desperate queues forming outside the gates with more children than could possibly be accommodated. A ballot method was introduced instead. On reception days mothers drew a ball from a bag, its colour deciding the fate of their child. Careful records were made of each child admitted, as well as identifying keepsakes which could be used to reclaim children. Several of these touching Foundling tokens are on show: metal tags with names, ribbons, buttons, lockets and even a hazelnut shell. Handel’s annotated musical score for the Foundling Hospital Anthem, based on Psalm 41, ‘Blessed is he that Considereth the Poor’ is displayed, as is a modern scale model of the original Hospital building and original admissions registers. The Committee Room was where mothers were interviewed before being submitted for the ballot process. Pictures include 19th-century scenes with charitable themes and Hogarth’s great March to Finchley, the scene set in the Tottenham Court Road in the winter of 1745, where a band of guardsmen is moving off to Finchley before marching north against Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebels. The King’s Head tavern has been commandeered by the notorious brothel-keeper Mother Douglas. Hogarth sold the picture by lottery; 167 of the unsold 2,000 tickets were donated to the Hospital, which won the picture. Set into panelling above the chimneypiece is George Lambert’s Landscape with Figures, his Hospital presentation picture. The Staircase is the original 18th-century boys’ wing oak staircase, originally fitted with a rail and spikes to stop the boys sliding down. Hung on it are paintings with sentimental and moral subjects; portraits of governors; and Benjamin West’s Christ Presenting a Little Child, the Hospital chapel altarpiece. On the first floor landing is Andrea Casali’s Adoration of the Magi, the 1750 altarpiece which West’s replaced in 1801.

The Picture Gallery was the principal 18th-century visitor attraction. Here important full-length portraits of governors and other Hospital figures hang, principally Hogarth’s Captain Thomas Coram (1740), a masterpiece of British art, which Hogarth presented to the Hospital. Coram is shown seated on a dais, with columns behind, holding the seal of the Hospital’s Royal Charter: the composition is redolent of traditional Baroque pomp, and yet Coram appears wigless and ruddy-cheeked, a direct realism contrary to expected polite decorum. Other portraits include Ramsay’s Dr Richard Mead, the internationally famous physician, scholar and collector, and Hospital governor, with a statue of Hygieia, goddess of health, in the background; Hudson’s Theodore Jacobsen, shown holding architectural plans and elevations of the Hospital; and George II by Shackleton. In the Foyer are seapieces (many Foundlings followed naval careers) including a monochrome preparatory sketch for Copley’s enormous Siege of Gibraltar (Guildhall Art Gallery).

The
Court Room, where the Board of Governors met and where select social entertaining took place, was the most elaborately decorated room in the 18th-century building, carefully reconstructed in 1937. The spectacular Rococo plasterwork was the free gift of the plasterer William Wilton, the marble chimneypiece, by John Devall, was donated by him in 1747, and its marble relief overmantel, Charity, is by Rysbrack. The four large biblical paintings are Hagar and Ishmael by Highmore; The Little Children Brought before Christ by James Wills; The Finding of the Infant Moses in the Bulrushes by Hayman; and Moses Brought before Pharoah’s Daughter by Hogarth, all of them appropriate themes for a charity caring for abandoned children. The landscape roundels between them, set into plasterwork surrounds, were installed in 1751 and show views of London charitable foundations by leading British landscape artists: the Foundling Hospital is by Richard Wilson and the Charterhouse by the 21 year-old Thomas Gainsborough.

The Gerald Coke Handel Collection on the second floor is a scholarly resource with manuscript musical scores and a library. Next door visitors can sit in leather winged armchairs with built-in audio systems which play a selection of Handel’s music (but disappointingly not the Foundling Anthem).

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

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