Magazine article The Spectator

Artistic Generosity

Magazine article The Spectator

Artistic Generosity

Article excerpt

My routine on these summer evenings has been to walk down to the lake to feed the ducks before eating supper in a courtyard filled with scented flowers. What on earth could induce me to leave this for London? An invitation to visit the extraordinary Foundling Museum, whose future is now the subject of parliamentary debate.

There is a blockbuster film script in the story behind the museum. It dates back to the early 18th century, when a rough-andready sea captain called Thomas Coram returned to London after spending several years in the United States. He found the streets littered with abandoned babies. Horrified, he discovered that there were no organisations to take in illegitimate infants and thereafter dedicated his life to establishing a refuge for them. Childless himself, he was helped by another childless friend, William Hogarth, whose portrait of Coram is one of the great masterpieces of the Foundling Museum collection.

In 1739 George II (who proclaimed that he hated `all poetry and painting' when confronted by another of Hogarth's pictures) finally granted the Royal Charter for the establishment of the Foundling Hospital. It proved so popular that mothers had to draw lots for their baby to be accepted.

Crowds would look on as the mothers picked the coloured balls that decided their child's fate. A white ball and your baby was accepted, red put it on a waiting-list, black meant your child was turned away, in all likelihood to die. The museum has kept a selection of pathetic mementos left by the mothers whose babies were accepted: ribbons sewn with sequins, mother-of-pearl jewellery, letters and notes. But the children never got to see them for they had their names changed as soon as they arrived and were never told who their mothers were. At the hospital they continued to be supported by the generosity of artists. Some, like Joshua Reynolds, were famous; others, like Charles Brooking, who gave a vast seascape that still hangs in a downstairs room, were poor. …

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