RSVP - Artists Return To Foundling Museum After 267 Years

By Isla Harvey | 27 September 2007
a photo of a man strapped to a paper cut out of an aeroplane

Matt Cook, Artist Becomes Aeroplane, 2007. Photographic still of live art piece. Courtesy Foundling Museum

Isla Harvey takes a look round the Foundling Museum, which is hosting its first new public art exhibition in 267 years.

From hospital to gallery the Foundling has a rich cultural history. In 18th century London it was a shelter for abandoned babies at a time when there were few provisions for society’s vulnerable.

Founded by philanthropist Thomas Coram it was home to over 27,000 destitute children between 1739 and 1953. It also became London’s first public gallery with the help of painter Williams Hogarth who encouraged other artists to exhibit their works in the building.

Great artists such as Gainsborough and Reynolds gained fame and recognition with the help of the Foundling. The composer George Frideric Handel was also a governor and now has a room devoted to him in the building.

a wall with two sculpted heads of fishermen in yellow sou-westers on

Simon Liddiment, Men of the Mountains, Desert and Sea, 2007. Courtesy Foundling Museum

Now situated across the road from the original hospital, the Foundling Museum stands as a restored 1930s building in London’s Brunswick Square.

Currently the museum is housing its first exhibition of contemporary art since 1740. It aims to continue the tradition begun by Hogarth of promoting young and upcoming artists. In the 18th century it was a young Gainsborough who was being touted with his first eminent work The Charterhouse, which he painted at the tender age of 21. This piece can still be seen in the museum alongside the modern works.

RSVP showcases the work of 15 artists from the East of England in memory of Gainsborough who made his home in East Anglia. Funded by the Commissions East project, each artist was asked to create work in response to the artistic and sociological history of the Foundling.

a photograph of wooden lollipop sticks with faces on them

Alex Pearl, Foundling Chorus, 2007. Courtesy Foundling Museum

As the hospital was a saviour for children, many of the artists have chosen child-focused themes for their work. Sandra Flower has pasted child-height wallpaper in the hallway. The paper is covered in names, some in Edwardian script, depicting how each child who entered the Foundling was given a new name.

These names were usually biblical or from influential figures of the era such as Isaac or Joseph. Mixed with these are common names for children of the 21st century – often related to consumer goods or global brands such as Porsche and Chanel. These names are written in the hand of a modern-day school child.

The artist Zory, once an Iranian refugee, explores notions of abandonment and loss. When mothers left their babies at the Foundling they would leave a keepsake token as a way of identifying the child if they were ever able to return to collect them.

a sketch of a street scene with a drawing of a large baby superimposed in the foreground

Sarah Sabin, Sketch for survival manual, 2007, Digital image. Courtesy Foundling Museum

Zory has made casts of these tokens that she has than strung up on lengths of human hair that she “obtained from a wholesaler”. Zory has also made a haunting sculptural piece made up of three crows (not taxidermy but very realistic) perched around piles of tiny dead-looking white birds. The crows, Zory says, represent “destruction and bombardment”, feelings that children at the Foundling are sure to have grappled with.

Foundling youngsters were not only cared for but also primed for the world of work with apprentices in trades such as tailoring. Nicola Naismith has concentrated on the technical process of these skills and documented them painstakingly in the form of photographs, drawings and digital film.

Naismith’s work is the least emotive of the exhibition that provides a practical edge to a show, which is based mostly on human interest and sympathy for children.

a black surface with names scrawled upon it in white

Sandra Flower, Palimpsest, 2007. Digitally printed wallpaper. Courtesy Foundling Museum

Most interesting is the way that the new art sits so uncomfortably against the period features and grandiose paintings of the 18th century. It seems fragile, plastic and disposable compared to the imposing portraits that stare down from above them. It makes for an unlikely but fascinating marriage – with 267 years between partners.

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