Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday, 3 February 2008

The Foundling Museum

Camden Borough Council have taken a leaf out of New York's book and invented a Museum Mile of their own. This neatly links places that attract enormous numbers on their own account (the British Museum, the British Library, Sir John Soane's Museum) with others that even Londoners tend not to hear much about. One is the Wellcome Collection, which I visited recently. Another is the Foundling Museum.

The museum commemorates the work of the Foundling Hospital, founded by this genial-looking chap, a retired shipbuilder called Thomas Coram, and the association with it of the painter Hogarth and the composer Handel, who both used their work and connections to raise funds for the Hospital.

Founded at a time when 40% of all deaths were of infants, the Hospital was part of a wave of response to the upheavals of rapid urbanisation - partly charitable, partly concern over the waste of human potential, perhaps also concern over social unrest. Mind you, it was a pretty slow-moving wave: it took decades for Coram to get support from the powers that be to launch his charity, and even longer before there was support by way of public funds.

In the early days, the children taken in weren't strictly "foundlings" - they had to be brought in by their mothers, whose own character had to meet the required standard. One of the most touching displays is a cabinet of the tokens left with the children - bracelets, rings and other trinkets, and even this poem:
Hard is my Lot in deep Distress
To have no help where Most should find.
Sure Nature meant her sacred Laws
Should men as strong as Women bind.
Regardless he, unable I,
To keep this image of my Heart.
Tis vile to Murder! hard to Starve
And Death almost to me to part.
If Fortune should her favours give
That I in Better plight may Live,
I'd try to have my boy again
And train him up the best of Men.

There was even a lottery to get in (imagine being blackballed from this last resort!).

Of course, over time, the Victorian sense of "charity" almost as an imposition eventually came into play, with rigid disciplines, as shown in the documents and uniforms on display. But to go into an apprenticeship, or domestic or military services, could be a better outcome than for many children in families. There are photographs of more recent inhabitants as happy and successful adults - one man who went into the Army, survived the First World War and married had no other family but the Hospital to whom he could send such images of his success and happiness.

Nowadays, the site of the bulk of the Hospital is Coram's Fields, where no adult can enter without being accompanied by a child, and the successor charity is focussed on working with families rather than substituting for them.

The museum itself also displays a collection of art, mostly portraits of the Hospital's dignitaries, and in the governors' impressive Court Room, pictures of Biblical stories making a point about the care of children. There are pictures of other charitable institutions of the time. Most of them struck me as indifferent (there are some dreadfully sentimental Victorian images of exceptionally angelic children at prayer and in the sickroom - one of a child being returned to her mother). The star is Hogarth's March of the Guards to Finchley - but some were painted by now famous names, to whom Hogarth pointed out the benefits of advertising their talents to the rich, well-connected and generous by exhibiting their work as a fund-raiser - the first modern form of art show, leading ultimately to the Royal Academy.

More important still is the Handel connection. He gave concerts for the Hospital and left it a manuscript of Messiah. There's a collection of memorabilia on display, and currently a temporary exhibition on the monster Messiah performances at the Crystal Palace. A recording of one of these multi-thousand performances from the 1920s was playing: not surprisingly, it sounded sluggish and glutinous alongside the last performance I heard - by the Sixteen, not 16,000.

Coram (who managed to fall out with the other governors), Handel and Hogarth show us that sometimes the "great and good" have actually been precisely that. And it's good to celebrate it.

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