The Foundling Museum

40 Brunswick Square WC1N

Ok, Ok, stay with me. There is a Greenwich connection (albeit a bit feeble) but I visited this great little museum yesterday and it’s so fab, I’d probably have told you about it even if there wasn’t.

The Foundling Hospital was begun, like so many worthy institutions, in the 18th Century after a lot of campaigning on behalf of Thomas Coram. He wasn’t rich himself, but he was childless – and had a passion for helping the abandoned children that littered London’s streets that touched 18th Century Ladies Who Lunch and through sheer force of personality he managed to get it together.

Albeit he had a couple of very powerful mates – also childless – who muscled-in on the fundraising – One George Frideric Handel, whose benefit performances of The Messiah in the hospital were the 18th Century equivalent of Live Aid (they were so popular that gentlemen were told not to wear their swords and ladies their hoops so they could fit more people in) and the artist and satirist William Hogarth who donated some of his paintings(and who may or may not have rigged a raffle so that the hospital ‘won’ another.)

The hospital saw thousands of orphans and abandoned children pass through its doors between 1741 and its closure in the 1950s (though the actual location had moved by that time) but thousands more were turned away. The museum has a little ‘tombola’-type thing for modern children to turn to find out whether they would be accepted (provided they didn’t have a nasty disease,) put on the waiting list or rejected instantly – pretty much the same sort of thing that desperate mothers hoping to deposit their illegitimate children would have gone through.

It’s not big – just a few rooms – and the entrance price (£ 5 adults, children free) might seem a little steep, but as with so many of our really fascinating small museums (like our own Fan Museum)it receives no government subsidy and has to fund itself.

It’s in three parts. The main part is the history of the foundling hospital – with touching little exhibits such as uniforms (which virtually never changed through the years) and cutlery, though easily the most moving display is the collection of little tokens the mothers left with their children to prove identity in case they were ever able to reclaim them. They range from little brooches and trinkets to the top off a beer bottle and a hazelnut. They were never either collected or given to the children themselves. There are also some heart-rending letters.

The Hospital, right from the start, was given a lot of paintings by Hogarth and his mates and they used to open them to the public to raise funds, making it the first public art gallery. The second part of the museum is the paintings collection. There is a wonderfully jolly picture of Coram himself, by Hogarth (another one was stolen by some rotter in the 90s) though from the painting of the poor guy in charge of the hospital’s finances he clearly had the weight of the world upon his shoulders.

The painting that the hospital “won” in Hogarth’s lottery is intriguing. The March of the Guards to Finchley was originally painted for the king, who was insulted because Hogarth, being Hogarth, couldn’t resist painting the militia in total disarray, drinking, debauching and consorting with ‘the wrong types.’ Hogarth was left with the painting on his hands, so he made his cash by selling engravings of it (the Georgian equivalent to the Athena print) then put the original up for lottery. The tickets sold well, and he gave odd unsold ones to the hospital. Even at the time no one was surprised when the hospital won…

The third part of the museum is devoted to Handel – some of it is open to the public; scholars can book time to see the rest.

And the Greenwich connection? In what is definitely the grandest room of all, dripping with white rococo plasterwork, among the biblical scenes of the discovery of Moses, are little roundel-paintings of all the charitable hospitals of London. Most people flock to the early Gainsborough depiction of Charterhouse, but my eye was drawn to The Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich. We’re next to Bedlam…

Do check out this sweet little museum if you’re in town. It’s a two-minute walk from Russell Square Tube.

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