The Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square, is one of those small London museums that is easy to miss. They’ve had some publicity recently due to their new exhibition, The Fallen Woman, which discusses the issues of extra-marital sex and prostitution in the nineteenth century and the responses from social reformers and artists. I can wholeheartedly recommend the exhibition, which is a timely response to the execrably exploitative J**k the R*****r outfit in the East End.*
What I’m more concerned with here though is to point out that you don’t need the excuse of a special exhibition to visit the Foundling, the permanent collection more than justifies a visit by itself. The story of the foundation of the hospital in the 18th century through the strenuous efforts of Thomas Coram is well documented and I would urge anyone who is interested in the development of London to do a little reading in Roy Porter to get a sense of the background.**
Take a good look at the statue of Thomas Coram in the courtyard, which is based on a portrait by Hogarth that you’ll find inside. One of the pleasures of the museum is that it gives you a cross section of the greatest visual artists working in London through the early years of the Hospital’s history. So you’ll find Hogarth’s portrait of Coram, as well as one of his best satirical works, The March of the Guards to Finchley, works by Reynolds and Rysbrack, as well as a set of Rowlandson prints. These are all good fodder for 18thC buffs and count among the things one might expect from a visit. But one of the pleasures of small museums, whose collections are necessarily not comprehensive but often rely on the less-fêted gifted works to fill the walls, is coming across the things that you didn’t expect to see.
On this occasion the first of these, the Handel collection on the top floor, wasn’t exactly something that I hadn’t expected to see, it was rather a collection that I didn’t expect to find so fascinating. Handel was another major benefactor of the Hospital, holding benefit recitals for the foundlings of his Messiah in the great hall of the original building. The current collection houses the Gerald Coke Handel Collection which has all sorts of fascinating objects to it, as well as being an enormous collection of Handel manuscripts.
One of the things that I liked about the collection, and it’s a feeling I similarly got in Dr Johnson’s House last year, is how much these great figures of 18th century London depended on collaboration and clubbability to make their way through the cultural economy. Aristocratic patronage was still important to get publication or put on a show but it wasn’t the only means of making one’s way in the world. The growth in disposable income of the middle and working classes meant that their work could be genuinely popular and commercially viable, especially if two or more artists came together to pool their talents – as is documented by Handel’s partnership with Dryden to produce Alexander’s Feast or the Power of Musick. It feels like you’re peering in to the birth of modern London to see the documents of all these collaborative projects.
Such a collaborative approach is strikingly used in the contemporary artworks on the ground floor that respond to the history of the foundling children. The story of the foundlings is well told through documents, visuals and oral testimonies in a way that will appeal to children as well as to adults. A lot of people I’ve talked to about the museum find the tokens, items that mothers left with their baby that could be used as proof of parenthood if they later came to claim back their child, the most moving exhibits.
Just as touching to me on my visit was a work produced in collaboration between the artist Emma Middleton, the animator Shelly Wain and the child patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital. The museum, in my view, is worth visiting for this contemporary artwork alone. It’s tucked away around a corner so make sure that you don’t miss it!
And then there were all the little items in between the big stuff. Two of which were by an artist, Anne Susanna Zileri, who was entirely new to me. Her paintings of The Secretary’s Room and The Court Room are utterly fascinating in their muted mysteriousness. They put me in mind of de Hooch interiors rendered in the style of Hammershøi. Without any human figures her rooms have the feeling of having just been vacated, yet they are not without human warmth. These little discoveries are the kinds of thing that you rarely make in a major gallery or museum. Zileri might not work her magic in any other context, it might be that her rooms work because they resonate with the real rooms that you’ve just passed through but the testing out will be an unexpected pleasure. If I can find anything else of hers on public display.
One caveat I have about the Foundling is that at £8.50 for a standard ticket it is on the north side of reasonably priced. Entry is free with an Art Fund card but I wonder if the museum might take a leaf from the London Transport Museum’s book and encourage repeat visits by letting the £8.50 cover a calendar year of visiting. With such a diverse collection there’ll be treasure missed on a one off visit that are worth going back for.
* In my last post about the Salvation Army I was fully prepared to give it with both barrels to the tawdry industry around the Whitechapel Murders but didn’t really feel the need to add to the excellent work done by the many historians and guides who have piled in against it. I gave up doing tours about the subject very quickly after becoming a guide (although if I’d stuck with it I could quite easily have made a living from that alone) and if people ask me to guide that narrative I make them a counter-offer of a more contextualised history of the East End.
** Roy Porter, London: A Social History (London, 1994) Peter Ackroyd writes more wordily but Porter has better historical chops.
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).