Curator's Choice: Lars Tharp of the Foundling Museum chooses a portrait of Thomas Coram

Lars Tharp interviewed by Chris Broughton | 03 February 2009
A painting of a man sitting on a chair with a globe by his feet.

William Hogarth's portrait of Thomas Coram. Courtesy The Foundling Museum

Curator's Choice: In his own words... Lars Tharp, Director of the Foundling Museum, talks about William Hogarth's oil-on-canvas painting of Captain Thomas Coram.

"It is the portrait of a man sweeping all before him, bringing a howling gale into the Gallery where, along with his urbane Foundling governors, it hangs today. But for how long?

The Foundling Museum is a unique national treasure, its art and ‘ordinary’ objects – including the poignant tokens left by mothers in the hope of reclaiming their infants in happier times – are eloquent travellers from its origins in 1739 when Thomas Coram finally obtained the Royal Charter for a 'Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children' – to our shame the first such institution in England.

The breathtaking full-length portrait of Coram proudly clutching, like a hard-won trophy, the Seal of Royal assent, is inscribed with 'Painted and given by Wm. Hogarth'. It is simply 'The Greatest Portrait of an Englishman by England’s Greatest Artist'.

Artist and subject were determined, self-made men from Britain’s newly emerging middle classes.

Transcending aristocracy Coram usurps an aristocratic pose: enthroned on land in his scarlet sea-faring coat, his silver hair (no fusty wig for him) has been curled by oceans; the sitter is a sailor, his feet don’t touch the ground; and in Coram’s face Hogarth conjures a storm of ambiguities by turns benevolent, compassionate, amused and impatient, as if about to say, 'Be done with your daubing, Mr Hogarth, there’s work to be done'. And there was.

An image of a man standing in front of a statue of a man and dog.

Lars Tharp next to a statue of William Hogarth. Courtesy The Foundling Museum

The portrait was installed four years after it was painted when the Foundling Hospital, newly erected on a rural 56-acre site (today’s Bloomsbury) opened its doors. Coram is depicted at his moment of triumph. But the dogged qualities which brought him success (after nearly 20 years of campaigning) were the very attributes, which henceforth saw his decline: he was not a committee man.

Though remaining a governor until his death, he was excluded from all the hospital’s governing committees. In his latter years he was occasionally seen sitting in the grounds of his own institution, treating the children to raisins.

An icon to humanity, Hogarth’s “Thomas Coram” achieves the heights of the possible in painted portraiture. It hangs at the Foundling Museum but belongs to the ongoing children’s charity, which carries its founder’s name.

In the uncertain years ahead, if the Coram charity were forced to dispose of some of its artworks (freely donated by the artists), a collection that forms a central part of Modern Britain’s history and hidden consciousness theoretically faces dispersal. That must never happen. We now have 18 years to collect the millions required* to secure this and the remaining collection. Returning to the portrait, I can hear Coram mutter: “There’s work to be done…”" 

*The money raised has a double virtue – it goes to Coram’s charity.

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