London: The Foundling Museum

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I think I’ve been to most of the free museums in London, so it’s time to suck it up and start working my way through some of the ones that charge admission, despite my very limited budget.  To that effect, I went to check out the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury a few weeks ago (£7.50 for admission, closed Mondays).  The Foundling Museum was established to house the collections of the former Foundling Hospital (now known as Coram).  A foundling hospital was similar to an orphanage, the difference being that “foundlings” were children whose parents were alive, but unable to care for them for one reason or another (poverty, illness, etc), as opposed to orphans, whose parents were dead.  Because of that aspect of the Hospital, much of its collection is naturally quite poignant.

I was advised to start on the ground floor, in the gallery that detailed the history of the Foundling Hospital.  It was founded by philanthropist Thomas Coram in 1739, and began accepting children in 1741, although the hospital building itself wasn’t completed until 1745.  In the early years, parents who left their children at the home were encouraged to leave a token with them, so if they were able to support the child at a later date, there would be a way of claiming them (sadly, the children weren’t allowed to keep the tokens, as they were put in safekeeping in case the parents returned).  These were usually coins or other small objects, often engraved with the name of the child (which was changed when the child became a foundling, so they could start a new life) and their birth date – the museum has a case full of them.  Beginning in the late 18th century, a system of  paper “receipts” was instituted instead, rendering the tokens obsolete (which I suppose is an unsentimental way of putting it).  Due to the poverty that was rampant in Georgian and Victorian London, there was more demand than there were places (as in a pre-birth control era, the only alternative for destitute parents was infanticide), so a lottery system was instituted – only those who drew a white ball would have their children accepted.

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For the children who were accepted into the home, life would be strictly regulated and spartan, but at least they were well-fed and educated, and had somewhere warm to sleep.  To illustrate this, the museum had a collection of the children’s utilitarian uniforms, which changed little over the centuries, and some schedules of their daily routine (the focus gradually changed from simply learning to read and practice a trade to a more well-rounded education including things like mathematics and geography, and of course, a hefty dose of religious education), and menus (a fairly basic diet, though not quite as much gruel as you might expect.  It was certainly a better life than a workhouse, even if the children were required to be silent during meals, and most other times).  Some of the children were eventually reclaimed by their parents when their income improved, as evidenced by a few leaving reports, but most of the children were there until they were apprenticed out around the age of 14; boys would learn a trade or join the military, and girls were usually put into domestic service.  Although this all sounds rather grim, there were many foundlings who went on to lead successful lives, with opportunities they may well not have had without the benefit of the education provided at the Foundling Hospital – some of their testimonials can be found in the museum.

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William Hogarth had close ties with the hospital, as he and his wife often took in foster children, and he helped the hospital out whenever he could through donations and raffles, which is how the museum ended up with the splendid The March of the Guards to Finchley (seen above).  They also have a few other Hogarths, mainly paintings of the hospital’s physicians, and lots of 19th century art, my favourite pieces being those by Emma Brownlow, who was a daughter of one of the hospital’s directors, and thus got an insider’s look at things, painting the children in various scenes of Foundling Hospital life.

George Frideric Handel, the composer, was another supporter, leaving the hospital £1000 in his will (the equivalent of around £70,000 in today’s money) in addition to the score of Messiah so the hospital could carry on with benefit concerts (he also hosted these concerts in his lifetime, raising the equivalent of an additional half a million pounds for the hospital).  Today, there is a small upstairs gallery devoted to Handel’s life and involvement with the hospital (and some neat grandfather clocks on the stairs leading up to it).  There are also a few rooms that re-create what the hospital would have looked like in the 18th century, with portraits and even an old ceiling brought in, as the current building only dates back to the 1930s.

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The museum also has a couple galleries for temporary art exhibitions – lucky for me, the current one is based around something I love, Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress.  In addition to the prints of Hogarth’s original, they had four modern artists interpret the theme.  My regular readers will know that I do not care for modern art, generally speaking, but this wasn’t bad.  I’m not a David Hockney fan, and his prints were probably my least favourite, as I didn’t really get what the hell was going on, and Jessie Brennan’s prints of council estates weren’t really to my taste, but I could see how other people would like them.  Yinka Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy didn’t seem to offer any great insight beyond commenting on race and colonialism by making Hogarth’s Rake black, but they were playful and I enjoyed looking at them.  I was most surprised by Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences, which were housed in their own small, and very crowded downstairs gallery, as I’ve never been particularly impressed by Perry when he’s on TV and such, but I really did like it.  The tapestries were colourful and pretty awesome looking, and I think the subject matter (social mobility) was interesting and relevant to the museum’s subject matter (please excuse my lame commentary, I’m not an art critic so I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about, just going by what I like!).

Although I wasn’t expecting so much of the museum’s collections to be art-based, I liked that the temporary exhibits all revolved around a central theme (it helps that the theme was based on Hogarth’s work, woot), which gave everything a nice cohesiveness, and even the permanent artwork wasn’t half bad.  I definitely enjoyed the section on the history of the Foundling Hospital the most though, as that was the whole reason I wanted to visit the museum in the first place.  The story of the children whose parents were forced by circumstance to give them up is a fascinating, albeit emotional one, and the museum does a good job of telling it.  4/5.

 

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4 comments

  1. A very different museum, and a whole concept I’d never heard about before. I must say that I’ve definitely been inspired to scope out free museums and house museums since I’ve started reading your blog. There’s so much to learn inside of them, and they’re often not as overwhelming as colossal museums.

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