Good fellows and foundling fathers

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London’s first charitable home for “exposed and deserted” children was also the capital’s first proper art gallery. The Foundling Museum still houses a collection of British art that is unique, in that the works – paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, Richard Wilson, Samuel Scott and others, sculpture by John Michael ­Rysbrack – have never moved from the place for which they were created. William Hogarth, an early patron of the Foundling Hospital, presented his magnificent full-length portrait of its founder, Thomas Coram, in 1740; it still dominates the exhibition rooms today. Hogarth persuaded artist friends to make their own appropriate contributions. A visit to the hospital’s elegant high-ceilinged rooms became a modish outing for wealthy visitors and patrons; for the benefit of these same patrons, George Frideric Handel put on a series of concerts in 1749, and in 1750 he conducted the Messiah in the hospital’s chapel.

Last Tuesday night this quiet corner of Bloomsbury was bright with light and champagne again. Here, in what from the outside appears a modest 1930s building, tucked behind a dark park, the journalist Kate Adie, Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, and Alex Poots, director of the Manchester International Festival, announced three new and unusual fellowships.

The Foundling Museum opened in 2004 next to the site, in Coram’s Fields, of the original Foundling Hospital. In the reconstructed 18th-century grandeur of the picture gallery inside, surrounded by stately portraits of the hospital’s 18th-century benefactors, Jacqueline Wilson, children’s author and creator of the redoubtable Tracy Beaker, Richard Wentworth, distinguished British sculptor, and Damon Albarn, musician and composer, were made the first Foundling Fellows. Each was presented, Albarn in absentia, with a small gold token, a lamb with a sprig of thyme in its mouth, based on the hospital’s coat of arms.

The calibre of the fellows and the illustriousness of the selectors is testimony to the affection and respect this small museum has won in the three years since it opened. Jamila Gavin’s novel Coram Boy, which inspired a National Theatre play, raised its profile, but it is still relatively unknown. It is a museum that works because it honours, on the spot where it occurred, a specific moment in ­London’s history, an accidental convergence of ideas, people and economic forces that has continued to reverberate ever since.

In 1739 the Foundling Hospital “for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children” was established by royal charter. The hospital was the brainchild of Coram, a successful, childless shipwright, who, on his return to England after years working in America, was appalled by the numbers of dying and unwanted children on the streets. Alongside the ­mercantile ­bustle and fashionable extravagance of early Georgian London, extreme ­poverty and the scandal of illegitimacy saw upwards of 1,000 babies abandoned, mostly to die, every year in the streets.

Instinctive compassion and horror at this waste of human life combined in Coram. With dogged persistence he hammered away for 17 years at the doors of an indifferent British establishment until, in 1739, Coram at last won his charter. By the end of 1740 land had been acquired and by 1742 the foundation stone was laid for a building to accommodate 400 children.

It was Coram’s board of governors, however, even more than Theodore Jacobsen’s serviceable building, eventually demolished in 1926, that ensured the permanence of his scheme.

Although Coram himself was voted out within a year (his persistence played as belligerence in the boardroom), the governors kept faith with his vision, ensuring its survival through successive generations right up until the final closure of the foundling institution in 1953. Over that time the hospital had cared for more than 27,000 children.

Even today, Coram Family, the organisation that succeeded the foundling hospital and which pioneers approaches to supporting vulnerable children and families, continues to pay homage to Coram’s original idea.

The story the museum preserves, however, is not just one about 18th century philanthropy. Hogarth and Handel, two of the early governors of the hospital, were also two of the most enterprising and energetic creative minds of the century. Art and charity played well together in the 1740s, as both required the support of wealthy patrons. Hogarth and Handel seized on the opportunities for active benevolence and self-promotion that the ­hospital offered and so transformed a worthy charitable endeavour into a catalyst for cultural change.

Right from the start, Hogarth had proposed that the hospital should also be a gallery in which contemporary artists could display their work. Here, by donating artworks, an artist could simultaneously flourish his generosity, attract attention to the hospital and advertise his skills. Following Hogarth’s example, a second founder-governor, the sculptor Rysbrack, donated his white marble relief, “Charity and Children Engaged in Navigation and Husbandry”, in 1745.

Within a short time a separate committee of artist governors, including most of the best artists then practising in London, had been formed: the extensive gallery began to resemble an artistic hall of fame. Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds contributed works, although they were not governors. The gallery became such a draw for both artists and fashionable Londoners that it eventually inspired the Royal Academy of Arts. In this way, art, though never directly for, by or with the children, was embedded in the meaning of the Foundling Hospital.

The hospital’s fundraising concerts quickly became social fixtures. Handel’s first “Performance of Vocal and Instrumental Musick” was staged to raise funds for the completion of the chapel. When in the following year he conducted the first of his many ­performances of the Messiah in the chapel, it was with the organ he had just donated. Partly under his influence and partly to supply the much admired chapel choir, all the children were taught choral singing, a tradition of musical education that lasted throughout the hospital’s history.

For many, music became a lifeline, the only relief from an otherwise drab and regimented existence. The annual performance of the Messiah at the hospital became such an institution that, on his death, Handel bequeathed it a fair copy of the manuscript, still preserved in the museum. Latterly, the museum has become guardian of the renowned Gerald Coke Handel Collection, an important assemblage of manuscripts, scores, memorabilia and books.

It is a complicated tripartite legacy – charity, art and music – that the Foundling Museum manages, one born out of accident, humanity and enlightened self-interest. It is one that Rhian Harris, its director, celebrates and turns to its advantage. Besides the collections themselves, there is in any given week a whole array of temporary exhibitions, concerts, book-readings, children’s activities and hands-on creativity, together with special collaborations with Coram Family next door.

One priority is to continue to make links between the museum, with its particular baroque, bewigged history, and today’s young parents and vulnerable children. Until recently it was precisely the kind of children the ­hospital was founded to protect who would have been least likely to benefit from the wealth of cultural activities that it and other institutions now offer children. It is this paradox that has given rise to the three fellowships announced on Tuesday.

Each of the new Fellows is named for one of the three famous founding figures – Wilson as Coram Fellow, Wentworth as ­Hogarth Fellow and Albarn as Handel Fellow. With financial support from the Clore Duffield Foundation, each has been given a free hand, as Harris puts it, “to explore and invigorate the relationship between charity, children and the arts”, and especially to see how they might reach out to new audiences.

Each has a considerable record not just of creative innovation in their own professional field but also of working with children. Wilson, whose famous character Tracy Beaker is a “looked after” child – a child in state care – and many of whose other books (The Dustbin Baby, The Suitcase Kid, The Bed and Breakfast Star, The Lottie Project) address emotionally difficult subjects, was a recent Children’s Laureate, campaigning for adults to read aloud to children as well as for greater literacy in schools.

Wentworth has played a leading role as both artist and teacher in New British Sculpture since the late 1970s. His 40-odd-year photographic project “Making Do and Getting By” is a monument to just that. Besides his job as Master of the Ruskin School of Fine Art in Oxford, he has been a patron and supporter of Room 13, The Art Room in Oxford, The Big Draw and many other children’s art initiatives, maintaining throughout an absolute refusal either to patronise or to surrender his own right to play.

Albarn, with his recent opera ­Monkey: Journey to the West, has achieved the near-miraculous task of enticing hundreds of children to an opera in Mandarin based on an ancient Chinese legend, not once but night after night.

It is a bold and imaginative initiative, in keeping with the idiosyncrasy of the museum. As Wentworth said, surely something must come of “parachuting in three people who come from such different points of the compass” to this frayed patch of Victorian London, where the confident pulse of today’s mercantile city grows fainter and you can still be astonished by the sheep and geese in Coram’s Fields, the only park in London that no adult can enter without a child.

The Foundling Museum, London; tel: +44 (0)20 7841 3600, www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk

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