Anne Gardom visits the Foundling Hospital Museum

The Foundling Hospital has long been part of our history, with its associations with Hogarth and Handel, and, of course, Captain Thomas Coram, and its impressive collection of paintings. In June this year the Foundling Hospital Museum was opened on the site of the original Hospital buildings in Brunswick Square.

The life expectancy of many children in the early eighteenth-century was appalling. It was estimated that as many as a thousand babies a year were abandoned on the streets of London alone, and the infant mortality rate in workhouses was about 100 per cent. The stigma of illegitimacy was seen as a taint that clung to the babies, and they were regarded as morally suspect and left to die.

Captain Coram, a tough successful sailor and self-made man, was horrified by the sight of dead and dying children in the streets and in 1722 began to canvass support for an institution to rescue them. With no connection with the church or any monastic foundation, it was to be the first secular institution of its kind. He lobbied, he petitioned, he bullied, he walked miles to collect signatures, he cajoled aristocratic ladies, and eventually had enough signatures to obtain a Charter in 1739. In 1740 a plan was drawn up for a Foundling Hospital to accommodate 400 children and in 1741 the first foundlings were admitted to temporary premises in Hatton Garden. It was immediately oversubscribed by unfortunate women desperate for the future of their babies.

By 1752 the final building was completed, housing 192 girls and the same number of boys, sleeping in separate wings, two to a bed in large dormitories. There was an elaborate chapel, a picture gallery and a court room, emphasizing the dual nature of the Foundation, which was unique – a place of shelter for children and a venue where polite society and potential donors could come and see the Hospital and be entertained. It was hugely successful. The great and the good came in large numbers, and gave generously. So did the artists, artisans and craftsmen who could see that the building was an admirable showcase for their skills. Hogarth painted a number of works, and, more practically, was an Inspector of Nurses (for the very small babies) in Chiswick, where he lived. Handel gave the original organ for the Chapel and conducted an annual benefit performance of Messiah in the Chapel. On the second floor the Gerald Coke Handel Collection contains manuscripts, scores and memorabilia relating to the life of the composer.

By 1926 London was no longer regarded as a healthy place for children to live and they were all moved out to the country. The huge buildings were pulled down, and replaced with much smaller premises, and it was here, 40 Brunswick Square, where the interiors were preserved and can now be seen in all their original elegance.

The magnificent rococo Court Room, preserved in its entirety, must be one of the most impressive rooms of the period in London. It has an elaborate plaster ceiling and plaster swags on the walls, and is decorated with works specially commissioned or donated by well-known artists. The paintings depict biblical incidents involving children, including Moses brought before Pharaoh’s daughter by Hogarth. The large paintings are interspersed with charming wreathed roundels showing a variety of contemporary hospitals and charitable institutions. The chimneypiece surrounds a marble relief of Charity by Rysbrack. This was truly a room where high society could be received, be impressed, entertained and encouraged give generously.

The Picture Gallery is a replica of the original gallery and was intended as a place where artists could show their pictures and the public could come and see them. In this it predated the Royal Academy. It was a great success and many artists exhibited there. It now houses a fine collection of portraits of Governors and Benefactors of the hospital. Hogarth donated his own portrait of Captain Coram which must be one of the best pictures he ever painted. It is a huge, full-length, seated portrait in the baroque style, and the energetic, dogged, unconventional Captain Coram commands our full attention. He, unusually, wears his own hair and not a wig, and holds his gloves and the Royal Charter in his strongly veined hands. A brilliant light falls on his rather battered features and across the whole picture, and shows a man to be reckoned with – but not an easy one.

In the centre of the building the handsome oak staircase from the original boys’ wing has been installed, with a series of portraits and pictures of religious subjects which might have hung there. Though plain it is of beautiful craftsmanship and generous proportions indicative of the dignity and importance that the governors gave to the building and its purposes. After a boy was killed sliding down the banisters a spiked rail was installed but this has not been retained!

The Committee Room on the ground floor is an accurate reconstruction of the room where mothers came to be interviewed about the suitability of their children for adoption. As there were more children than could be accommodated, places were allocated by ballot – white ball meant Yes, black ball was No, and red ball was a place on the waiting list. In this room hangs Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley, one of his splendid bravura pieces, full of incident, tragedy and human interest.

There are paintings, photographs and drawings showing the Foundling Hospital in its day-to-day activities. The girls’ school room, with neat rows of bent heads, white aprons and black-stockinged legs, the girls doing deep breathing exercises in the courtyard – these are real period pieces. There is a poignant one of the boys marching two-by-two out of the school for the last time – on their way to country accommodation in Redhill and Berkhamsted. Emma Brownlow painted some pretty but somewhat idealized pictures of children being re-united with their mother, or being nursed when sick – full of golden Victorian sunshine.

Perhaps most tragically poignant, however, are some of the letters written by illiterate and desperate mothers, and the tiny mementoes left with their babies to identify them should reunion ever be a possibility. The cheap little bead bracelets, the tiny lockets, or a cheap earring, sometimes only a piece of stained ribbon or a shred of paper – these little scraps tell us of much heartbreak and sadness – and yet those babies were the lucky ones.

There were hundreds of babies that would never have this chance, babies that would die of poverty and neglect, but Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital gave a value and dignity to the smallest child that still inspires and informs, however imperfectly, our thinking today.

The Foundling Hospital Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London. £5, £3 concessions. Children up to 16 free. Children’s activities available. Closed Mondays.

Anne Gardom is Art Correspondent of New Directions