Is there a better way to spend a hot, sticky summer Sunday afternoon in London than lounging in a park with an ice-cream? Perhaps there is: to spend a couple of hours in a house in Brunswick Square first, while the noonday sun wanes, and then eat ice-cream in a park. And on such an afternoon, you might be lucky to have the house all to yourself.
The house is, of course, the Foundling Museum. This is a modest survival of a vast project: several huge wings of institutional classicism overshadowing a spread of fields, eventually demolished when those fields had themselves disappeared under bricks and mortar. Nonetheless, the surviving building retains very much a grand feel – its plasterwork ceilings are neck-achingly good – and serves as a reminder of the stately-homeliness of the men who met in its rooms to discuss the futures of younger generations.
The Foundling Hospital was the product of the moral outrage and hard work of Captain Thomas Coram. Coram was horrified at the non-existent or woeful provision for unwanted children, and set about establishing an orphanage, which existed for over 200 years and looked after nearly 30,000 abandoned children; his foundation, now called the Coram Family, is still going. (More information on the Hospital and the Family can be found here.) Coram found some worthy supporters, notably William Hogarth and George Frederic Handel. Hogarth ensured a high profile for the Hospital by donating artwork, and challenging others to do the same. Handel both composed (The Foundling Anthem) and donated music (Messiah, inter alia).
The Museum reflects the contributions and interests of this childless triumvirate. On the ground floor is an exhibition on the foundation of the Hospital, and on the life and lives of its children. This gallery uses the best of modern museum practice, although the TV screen showing a loop of Coram children is unnecessary, and its accompanying muzak is a definite irritant. Muzak notwithstanding, half an hour can easily slip away listening to ex-Coramites’ remembrances of their childhoods. Documents and pictures are interspersed with cases of tokens left with children by their mothers. Many are cheap, some inappropriate; all are heart-rending.
Upstairs, past the portraits of terrifying governors, is the picture gallery, whose Reynolds, Gainsboroughs, and, of course, Hogarths, hang as nonchalantly as in the grandest stately home. (There is, incidentally, a truly awful picture by Hogarth – Moses being brought to Pharoah’s daughter: it foreshadows the worst of Victorian mush.) Further upstairs holds yet more treasures.
For the Handelian, it is lovely thing to ascend a staircase with long-case clocks and portraits of Handel’s librettists and musicians, with a Roubillac Handel at the top. This staircase leads one into a small room with the feel of a study. In the middle is a round table with a chronology of Coram and his contemporaries, and draws full of Handeliana. On the walls are a couple of display cases containing letters, music, and Handel’s will. And to top it all, surrounding the table are four comfortable armchairs which – wonder of wonders – play music at one. Each is devoted to an area of Handel’s compositions (opera, oratorio, sacred and instrumental), and each has an accompanying booklet with information about the tracks. The cosy thoughtfulness of this room is enough to detain even non-Handelians for some time.
On our way out, one of the volunteers, a particularly on-the-ball and bright chap, remarked that the Coke Collection has plenty more stuff to be displayed, and advised the Handelian to return every six months or so. I certainly shall.
The Foundling Museum is open Tues – Sat 10am – 6pm and Sun 12pm – 6pm, at £5, (concessions £3, under-16s free). The Gerald Coke Handel Collection is open Wednesday-Friday for research purposes; this has not been tried by the author (more information here).
-- Katie Hawks
Katie Hawks divides her time between teaching history in Cambridge and performing baroque music. She has recently conducted Handel's Giulio Cesare and his Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.
Date posted: 4 August 2005
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