Established in 1739 as a home for abandoned children, the Foundling Hospital became a cultural melting pot and London's first public art gallery.
The Foundling Hospital was established by Captain Thomas Coram, a retired sailor who was so moved by the plight of children abandoned on the streets of London that he set up a home for them. Among its influential supporters in the early years were the composer George Frideric Handel, who conducted benefit concerts for the Hospital, and William Hogarth, who donated several works of art and encouraged other artists to follow his example.
The hospital ceased to exist in 1954, but the charity, now named Coram, still works on behalf of vulnerable children. The Foundling Museum was established in 1998 to house and care for the remarkable collections.
To date, the gallery has run two successful Art Happens crowdfunding campaigns. The first in 2015, raised over £25,000 to put on The Fallen Women exhibition which revealed the untold stories of the women who gave up their babies to the Foundling Hospital. As part of their 2018 Ladies of Quality & Distinction campaign, they raised £35,000 to take down the portraits of the male governors who dominate their Picture Gallery and rehang it with 21 portraits of their first female champions.
In episode two of the second series of our podcast Meet Me at the Museum, join poet and chancellor of Manchester University Lemn Sissay as he takes good friend Asif Khan along to the Foundling Museum in London, where they explore the UK’s first children’s home and first public art gallery.
Although the museum is housed in a 20th-century building, it contains Rococo interiors and furniture from the original Hospital. The collections cover 18th and 19th-century art, memorabilia from the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, and items relating to the 27,000 children who passed through the Foundling Hospital's doors. In the magnificent Court Room are four large scale biblical paintings by Hogarth, Francis Hayman, Joseph Highmore and James Wills, and roundels depicting topographical scenes of London Hospitals by artists including Gainsborough, Samuel Wale and Richard Wilson. Inset into the chimney piece is a marble relief by John Michael Rysbrack.
Some of the most poignant items on show are the small tokens – everyday items such as buttons or coins – that mothers attached to their babies' clothes when they left them in the care of the Hospital so that the infants could be identified if their parents were in a position to reclaim them later.