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Want to know more about the Foundling Museum, one of the oldest museums in London? Read on below!
One day in the late 1730s, a well-known philanthropist Thomas Coram approached his good friend William Hogarth, the painter and satirist. The location of their meeting was probably in an elegant drawing room or bustling coffee house. Society in Georgian London was reaching dizzying heights of new wealth as merchants’ bank accounts grew fat from their ventures in the colonies. Sugar, tea, coffee and porcelain were luxuries that everyone in England wanted to consume and trade was roaring. But as the treasures houses of the wealthy grew and grew, the lives of the poor in London got steadily worse. There was no social welfare system, no healthcare, and no provision for children who were sick, needy or abandoned.
It was these children Coram wanted to talk about. For some years now, Coram had been shocked by the poverty affecting the children on London streets. These children were often orphans, homeless, undernourished and unloved.
For 17 years, Coram had been petitioning the Crown for a license to help the destitute children of London. Finally, on the 17 October 1739, King George II signed a Royal Charter for the creation of the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, London.
Mothers were to bring their babies to the Foundling Hospital to be cared for. It was hoped that their circumstances would change so they could one day reclaim them. The Hospital planned to arrange for foster families to care for the babies and young children until the age of five. They were then to be brought to live and be educated in the Foundling Hospital until the age of 15, many being trained for domestic or military service.
We can only imagine what Coram said to Hogarth but it was most likely an impassioned and emotional plea for help. The royal charter allowed the charity to exist but it was in desperate need of funding. Moved by Coram’s words, Hogarth dedicated his resources to helping the foundation. Hogarth and his wife Jane were childless and were extremely sympathetic to the plight of unloved children. When the first 60 children entered the Foundling Hospital in 1740, Hogarth donated £120 of his own money and a magnificent painting of Captain Coram. By painting this extraordinary artwork, Hogarth was expliciting praising and honouring his good friend. Full-length portraits were normally reserved for the titled aristocracy but Thomas Coram was a sea-captain from the merchant class. Hogarth was truly commending the work of his friend who was working so hard to create a better world for children; placing him on a par with nobility.. Hogarth also designed the children’s uniforms and the coat of arms, and he and Jane fostered foundling children.
‘The portrait that I painted with most pleasure and in which I particularly wished to excel was that of Captain Coram’
Hogarth’s didn’t stop there. He came up with an ingenious fundraising plan. Hogarth decided to set up a permanent art exhibition in the buildings of the hospital and he encouraged other artists to produce work for the hospital. The subsequent exhibition became quite a public spectacle, with some of the most prolific artists of the day including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Richard Wilson and Francis Hayman donating works. Consequently, Hogarth turned the Hospital into one of London’s most fashionable spaces. Curious visitors swarmed to the hospital to view works of art and were moved to make donations. At this time, art galleries were unknown in Britain, and Hogarth’s fundraising initiative is thought to be Britain’s first ever public art gallery!
This wonderful collection still exists today and is exhibited the Foundling Museum which documents also the history of this amazing charity. The charity, under the new name of ‘Coram’ continues to honour the legacy of Thomas Coram and William Hogarth by supporting underprivileged children. You can find out more about it here.