Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Age of Foundlings

On a recent trip to England, Your Humble Narrator managed a visit to the Foundling Museum, recommended to him several years ago by veteran travelers Theda Perdue and Michael Green. The museum stands on the site of London's first home for orphaned and fostered children, which philanthropist Thomas Coram founded in 1739, and which over the next two centuries housed over 25,000 boys and girls. Its exhibits include a history of the Foundling Hospital, with displays of inmates' clothing and beds and photos of foundlings who “graduated” in the twentieth century. One case contained a unique selection of artifacts: “tokens” left by children's parents to identify them if they wanted to redeem their offspring. These consisted of commemorative medals, passes to locales like Vauxhall Gardens, coins (sometimes clipped or punched), padlocks, penknife handles, and scraps of cloth. All silently testified to the ragged circumstances that had obliged mothers and fathers to abandon their children.

Other galleries tend toward opulence, rather than pathos. A sitting room, decorated in rococo style, pays tribute to the institution's wealthier patrons. A display room celebrates the life and work of composer George Handel, who helped finance the Foundling Hospital. A selection of paintings and prints by William Hogarth (another patron), including the original version of “March of the Guards to Finchley,” adorns another hall. Taken as a whole, the museum offers a cross-sectional view of London society in the eighteenth century: the refinement available to the wealthy, the satirical worldliness of a professional middle-class artist like Hogarth, and the wretchedness of the impoverished majority, for whom even a spartan life in a charity hospital seemed an improvement.

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