Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Coram Boys

We had some tickets for the British premiere of Korngold's Die Tote Stadt at the Royal Opera House this weekend, which was hugely exciting, but while we were in London we also had time to take in a couple of 18th-century museums: The Foundling Museum and Benjamin Franklin's House. They were totally different from one another; I'll post on Franklin shortly, but first, let me show you some snaps of The Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury.

Above is a statue of founder Captain Thomas Coram (you might recognise it from the Hogarth painting) and below is the exterior, with a bust of Coram over the door. Coram was a philanthropic sea captain who campaigned to create a 'hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children'. Hogarth was an early governor (he designed the uniforms for the children and the charity's coat of arms) and later, Handel gave the proceeds of a performance of Messiah to the foundation, as well as leaving a fair copy of the score to the hospital in his will.

I'm not sure why the original building was demolished in 1926, but today's museum (above, which stands adjacent to the original site of the Hospital) has some really impressive artefacts. On the ground floor we saw a fantastic exhibition on the Hospital's history, including some of the little tokens that were pinned to the children's clothing by parents for identification purposes, and original petitions from the mothers, some of which were very moving (a typical one states: 'I am sorry to be thus unfortunate an particular as it is intirely out of my power to suport [the child] as the father is absent. To had to my misfortune I have been deprived of parents ever since I have been five years old and have not a friend to apply to and no not in wat manner to support the enfant an I have thus been so unfortunate an only been a servent sence I was fourteen').

One thing I didn't know about the Hospital was that, because of the huge demand for charity, if a petitioner were successful she had to return with her child the following Saturday and take part in a ballot (pictured above), whereby she was given a bag and drew either a white ball (success) or a black ball (rejection). Incredibly, this took place in the Hospital chapel, with spectators positioned in the gallery above - it's difficult to imagine how distressing this must have been!

Coram, despite his ordinary background, managed to elicit an extraordinary amount of support for The Foundling Hospital, and it became to all intents and purposes, Britain’s first public exhibition space. Unfortunately I couldn't photograph them, but the museum includes several galleries, painstakingly reconstructed from the originals, and studded with works by Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Wilson, Hayman, Highmore, Roubiliac and Rysbrack. The picture above is of the staircase, but even here we have a famous painting of Handel's librettist, the outspoken Charles Jennens (far left).

We found a temporary exhibition called Handel the Philanthropist on the top floor, stuffed full of gems from the Museum's own Gerald Coke Handel Collection. In the glass case above was a portrait of Susannah Cibber, a china figure of Kitty Clive and various Handel scores, though perhaps one of the most fascinating exhibits was Handel's last will and testament on a special stand alongside; you could see evidence of the deterioration in his eyesight as he amended his will over a period of years, and his signature became shakier.

This is a must-see for anyone interested in the 18th century - the shop alone has enough to occupy Handel fans for quite some (not least a copy of Christopher Hogwood's 2007 Handel biography). As you can see from the picture below, we did buy the tea towel :)

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Polly said...

Great post. I work about 5 minute walk from Foundling Museum and that's probably why I've not visited it yet - because I think I can always go there. But your "review" got me interested... I'm definitely going to visit it soon.

Mrs Woffington said...

Hi Polly - you're very lucky being so close to so many great museums! I think the entry was only £5 and it really was very impressive, particularly The Court Room and The Picture Gallery on the second floor. Would love to know what you thought.