Thursday 11 September 2008

A Great Englishman

I dropped in on the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury today. One of London's less well known, it's been refurbished recently, so I was curious to see if it had improved from the rather uncommunicative building I'd toured 20-odd years ago. Happily it's been a sensitive and quietly effective job, the building now feels more alive - but not swarming with resting actors in frockcoats and mob caps, never fear - and the story of the Foundling Hospital is well told.
What a story it is. The Foundling Hospital was one of the greatest products of what Hogarth called 'the golden age of English philanthropy', i.e. the mid-18th century, when morality and self-interest flowed together in one beneficent (if narrow) stream. The Hospital's immediate purpose was to offer shelter, care and an education to children who would otherwise be abandoned. At that time, at least a thousand children a year (in a city of half a million souls) were abandoned in the street to die, or thrown on the rubbish dumps on the city margins. This situation so appalled the sea captain Thomas Coram, returning from America, that he resolved to do something about it. The Foundling Hospital was eventually, after many a setback, the result.
As well as being a home for children, the Hospital was an institution of high social tone, very popular with the aristocracy, and, remarkably, a centre for the arts, indeed London's first public art gallery. Handel was a major supporter, wrote an anthem for the Hospital and bequeathed it a fair copy of The Messiah. Concerts were held, and the children were trained in music (as at Vivaldi's La Pieta). Artists - not only English, but French and Italian - donated works. The result is that the Foundling Museum of today is a fascinating and quite unique art gallery, with works by Hogarth (of course), Gainsborough, Reynolds, Benjamin West, Richard Wilson, Roubiliac's great bust of Handel, etc. (Not to mention a dubious portrait confidently labelled 'William Shakespeare'.)
But the most touching and extraordinary exhibits are the unlabelled display cases of tokens left by desperate mothers with their babies as they handed them over to the care of the Hospital. Beads, trinkets, coins and half-coins, medallions, seals, labels, some inscribed, others blank - even, mystifyingly, a label from the neck of a bottle, reading 'Ale'...
Here is Hogarth's Captain Thomas Coram, one of the great English portraits - of a great English man.


  1. Nige, you do seem to lead an idyllic existence, floating from gallery to museum and back again. I would have to put Hogarth's portrait of Coram in my top ten favourite portraits of all time. What a man Coram must have been to see this through after years and years of pushing.

    Another masterly example of an Englishman painted by an Englishman is the Getty's Gainsborough portrait of James Christie, founder of the auction house that bears his name. I can't quite pinpoint why, but I'm certain that it is a brilliant likeness and also that I would enjoy his company enormously. See it here:

  2. Wonderfull portrait Nige and Hogarth one of our finest. We are still basking in the afterglow of last weeks visit at the Walraf-Richartz to the Kremer collection in particular Michael Sweerts A Young Maidservant, from which I had to be forcibly removed

  3. I'm not surprised, Malty - that is an absolute stunner.Thanks- I'd never seen it before... And thanks for the Christie link, Sophie (why did they sell it???) - a terrific portrait and he looks like very good company indeed... I'm afraid my 'idyllic' existence is down to a short absence from NigeCorp - normal wage slavery will resume next week. Cheers!

  4. Many thanks for this reference. I don't get to London all that often so this one is a must-see. Ironically I was in London today and saw two small expos, but the only things that have stayed with me are a Vermeer and a small Goya called The Picnic. Should manage to get them on Ebay later. I love the way Hogarth has painted Coram's legs (and the energy implicit in his whole body). Those are the legs of a real get-out-and-do-it character, not a lounge lizard type at all.

  5. That's a great painting! I always think of Hogarth in terms of those cautionary series ("The Rake's Progress," etc.), not as a bona fide artist, which you've now shown me he is/was. Thanks, Nige!

    The Foundling Hospital sounds fascinating. I love to visit places like that. If you ever get to Philly, check out the Mutter Museum of medical oddities. They were the first ones to display one of Thomas Eakins' medical subject paintings, btw ("The Anatomy Lesson"). Mutter is under the aegis of Jefferson Medical College.

  6. Thanks Susan - and Eakins was a great portraitist too, wasn't he? The Whitman portrait is wonderful...
    Mark - where did you see the Vermeer and the Goya? In the same expo? Sounds tempting...

  7. "Love" at the National Gallery, Nige. It's only a single room, not all that large. More of a talking point or idea than an expo, really. Good for a quickie. The Vermeer is "A Lady Standing at a Virginal".

  8. Thanks Mark - I very nearly dropped in there the other day. Perhaps today...

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