The Foundling Museum

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The Foundling Museum, image from artfund.org

Dear Reader,

Today, inspired by Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife, I decided to pay a visit to The Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square, London.  This relatively small museum opened in 2004 and explores the history of the UK’s first children’s charity, the Foundling Hospital.

In 18th century London, 75% of children died before they reached their 5th birthday – this startling fact greets you as you step through the door to the first exhibition room and sets the tone for a moving experience that opens one’s eyes to why this charity (which is still in operation today in the form of   Coram) was so desperately important.

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                                  Thomas Coram                                                         Image from coram.org.uk

The Foundling hospital was first set up by a former sea captain called Thomas Coram.  Upon returning home from America, where he had been living for twenty years, he was shocked to see the terrible conditions in which London’s poorer people lived.  Most shocking of all, was the number of babies he saw being abandoned every day on the streets, on road sides and even on top of rubbish heaps.  He decided that something must be done to save these innocent children’s lives.  The problem was that, kind-hearted though he may have been, he lacked the financial means to bring his idea to fruition.  He campaigned relentlessly for seventeen years and planned strategically whom he would approach to ask for help.  The book in which he wrote this list of wealthy personages can be seen at the Foundling Museum with the names of several duchesses, dukes, countesses and so on, all written in neat little handwriting.  Important in providing substantial support for Coram was the famous artist, William Hogarth and the composer, George Frideric Handel.  Finally, in 1739, King George II granted permission for the scheme to go ahead and in 1741, the first babies were admitted to the hospital.  As a visitor, you can go into the room that mothers would have been taken to when they wanted to give their baby up to the charity.  The anguish that they must have felt and the miserable circumstances that may have brought them there; the heart-wrenching sense of their desperation seems still to hang in the air alongside the very clear understanding that this hospital was unquestionably a force for good.

Poverty, abandonment by the father, widowhood, the shame of illegitimacy and even crime were some of the reasons for why so many babies were abandoned in 18th century London.  The Foundling Hospital provided somewhere for the babies to be taken, where they would be safe.  Upon admission, every mother was questioned as to the reason for her bringing her baby there; if the reason was not deemed strong enough, then she was sent away still in possession of her baby.  If the baby was accepted, then he or she was given a number, a new name, and a token which the mother was expected to provide in case she should ever want to reclaim her child.  It would enable her to prove her identity.  This was often a scrap of fabric cut from the infant’s clothes, though in a large glass case on the wall, there can be seen several other examples of the sorts of things that parents left as tokens for their children.  This, to me, felt like the most tragic exhibit on display.  When you look at this, you get a sense of the real people who had to do this.  Some of the tokens are simple household items – thimbles, the arm of a doll, cards, a pot of rouge, coins – probably all that the mother could afford to give.  Some of them were more personalised and included pieces of jewellery or coins with one side rubbed smooth so that a message could be engraved.  These tokens suggest an intention of the parent to be reunited with their child should their circumstances ever change or at least, to let them know that they were loved.  Sadly, few children ever did see their parents again.  Most were apprenticed out when they were about nine years old – boys to the army and girls into service.  Thankfully, there are records on display of what happened to some of the children, having been taken care of, provided with adequate meals every day and medical care so that they could survive, be discharged by the hospital and make their way in the world.  In 1954, the Foundling Hospital placed their last pupil in foster care and, as I mentioned before, it remains today as a charity, continuing to help disadvantaged children in excess of the 25,000 it helped from the mid 1700s to the mid 1900s.

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‘The Foundling Restored to its Mother’ by Emma Brownlow ,     image from foundlingmuseum.org.uk

The Foundling Museum was Britain’s first public art gallery, to which artists have been donating their work in order to raise money for the cause since the 18th century.  This is still the case today, and on your visit, you can see works by Hogarth, portraits of various notable personages from the hospital’s early days, a bust of Handel, a series of sentimental Victorian oil paintings depicting scenes from foundling life and several modern installations.  One which I rather liked was called ‘Brontëan Abstracts’, by Cornelia Parker.  On the top floor, you can see items to do with George Fridreric Handel, including the will which he wrote in his own hand.

The museum is open every day apart from Mondays and costs £8.25 if you are an adult wishing to see the permanent collection, though if you are a member of the National Trust, it is worth bringing your card along as you can enter for £4.25.  It is a couple of pounds extra if you want to see the additional exhibition, which changes regularly.  I really wanted to make the most of my visit and it took me about an hour and a half to walk around.  I would thoroughly recommend this museum to anyone who is interested in historical social conditions, people’s personal stories from history, women’s history, art and of course, classical music.

For those who are interested, the web address from Coram is http://www.coram.org.uk/

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Coram logo

How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore – A Review

 

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image from wendymoore.org

Firstly, I would like to say that the subtitle of this book: ‘The true story of one gentleman, two orphans and an experiment to create the ideal woman’, does not do the content of this work justice.  How to Create the Perfect Wife focuses on the socially awkward and eccentric Thomas Day, a gentleman who was born on 22nd June 1748 in the East end of London.  After his father’s death one year after he was born, he became the heir to a substantial fortune which would ensure that he would never have to work.  He was, it would seem, very intelligent and had a true desire to do good in the world.  In 1773, he and his friend, John Bicknell produced one of the earliest published attacks against slavery, a poem called  The Dying Negro, which opened readers’ eyes to the cruelty and injustice of slavery at a time when it was also very fashionable.  Day was not afraid to be unique and to stand up for what he believed in.  He did not care about fashionable clothes, or about leading a frivolous party lifestyle, though he could certainly have afforded to.  Instead, he wanted nothing more than to live a quiet, frugal and self-sufficient life, far away from the bustle and materialism of London society.  He took his inspiration from the popular philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and decided that to complete this idyllic dream, he would need a devoted, humble and hard-working wife by his side.  And here, we have to flaw in his character; the extraordinary experiment that Day set upon, with the full knowledge of his closest friends, to adopt two young orphans and raise them to be his future wives.  When one proved more suitable than the other, he would abandon the scheme for her and concentrate on the winner.

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Thomas Day by Joseph Wright image from wikipedia.org

The two girls that Thomas Day chose were Ann and Dorcas, or as he later named them, Sabrina and Lucretia.  Moore gives a very moving account of their early lives in the foundling hospital and of the lives of the women who had to give up their babies to such a fate at this time.  She goes to great lengths to explain the status of someone with no known parentage, which was essentially non-existent in 18th century Britain.  No doubt Day felt he was doing these girls a favour then, and perhaps in some ways he did.  Both were provided with an education and with money as Day had promised in a contract he drew up with a friend before the scheme went ahead.  The life of the girls under Day’s guardianship was extraordinary, as is the reaction of the people with whom they mixed.  Moore regularly draws comparisons with modern sensibilities and invites us to                                                                    question how such a man would be viewed today.

Yet this book focuses on so much more than this one social experiment.  In it can be found a wealth of information about 18th century society, the lives of the rich and the poor, the laws at the time, and an insight into the lives of some very interesting characters.  Day’s close friend, Richard Lovell Edgeworth should have a book all to himself.  Poignantly, each chapter is named after an important woman in Day’s life, and I cannot help but feel that this is a deliberate choice of Moore’s to give status to these second-class citizens, whom Day really did not seem able to understand or empathise with.  Moore delves into what their thoughts and feelings might have been.  This is difficult with the likes of Ann and Dorcas, whose early experiences were overshadowed by the way in which Day wished to portray them.  But Moore’s research is meticulous and they emerge from this book as full of life and as real as the men whose lives were so much more heavily documented.

The writing of this book is extremely compelling and after reading it, I felt that there was something tragic about the life of Thomas Day and indeed some of the women who featured.  That is what struck me – what Day did was undeniably wrong and at the very least, selfish, yet he did not intend to be a selfish person.  It was in his very nature and his province to help others.  So what we have here is a comprehensive account of a complex human being – one who seems to jump out of the pages at you as if he were flesh, and forces you to ask uncomfortable questions, to feel disgust at certain behaviour and to try to understand why it took place.   I think that’s all one can ask for from a biography.  It is simply fascinating.

Undressed: A brief History of Underwear exhibition review

 

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photo from daysoutguide.co.uk

Whenever I am in the vicinity of South Kensington’s Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I always pay a visit to the Fashion department.  Even though I must have seen it at least 20 times, I still get so excited when I see those Victorian dresses stood demurely beside their masculine counterparts, those elegant but practical suits from the 1940s, and the intricately embroidered gowns from the 18th century, their silk still gleaming.  I could stare at them for hours, wondering about the lives of the people who once wore them.  So, when I saw that there was to be a new exhibition on historical underwear, I wrote the dates down in my diary and made sure I got myself a ticket and someone to drag around with me (strangely there are no fellow historical underwear enthusiasts within my circle of friends, so my ever-obliging partner came along).

The exhibition is called ‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’, and runs until Sunday 12th March 2017.  Tickets without concessions are £12 and advance booking is recommended.  The display cases contain examples of underwear from the 18th century up to the present day, when the exhibition explores the current trend for underwear as outerwear.

Through the earlier examples of female underwear, I learnt the difference between corsets and stays; stays are what women wore mainly during the 18th century when the fashionable female figure was straight and upright, with wide hips.  We are more familiar these days with the Victorian corset, which draws the waist in and produces a tantalising hourglass figure that many women still aspire to today.  What I had not realised was how different the corset was in the early part of the 19th century, when dresses for women were looser and had an empire line design.  These corsets almost reminded me of modern bras, as they were much smaller and concentrated mainly on the bust.  How strange then for fashion to become more restrictive after this with the stiff and tightly laced corsets worn by women from about the 1830s until the turn of the next century.  Two interesting x-ray pictures are displayed, showing the internal effects of the tight lacing that we associate with the 19th century.  The exhibition also looks at male underwear and my partner, for one, was surprised at how prevalent the male corset was during the 19th century.  This is what helped to create the upright, gentlemanly figure we associate so closely with such dashing heroes of 19th century literature as Mr Darcy.

The upper floor of the exhibition displays some of the racier pieces in the collection and explores how close to underwear a garment can get before it becomes indecent.  It also displays several pieces from Agent Provocateur, whom I understand are sponsoring the exhibition.  All in all, it was an informative and entertaining visit and well-worth the £12 if you are interested in historical fashion.  I always judge the success of an exhibition by asking myself if I think I have learnt anything that I could not simply have gone to a book or the internet for.  This time, the answer is certainly ‘yes’, if not for the facts, then for the experience of getting so close to such precious, interesting and rarely-seen pieces of history.

Costume Drama Alert

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Picture from dailymail.co.uk

According to the latest press releases, a new, 8-part period drama about Queen Victoria is set to air on ITV this autumn in the UK.  The drama stars Jenna Coleman as Victoria and focuses on her ascension to the throne, aged 18, and her marriage to Prince Albert.  Of course, many of you who, like myself, have seen the 2001 production of Victoria and Albert, starring Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Firth will know that this drama will have a lot to live up to.  I have high hopes, however, as it is written by Daisy Goodwin, best known, at present, as a novelist (My Last Duchess is a brilliant read, if you get the chance).  It also looks like this series is shedding a different light on the revered monarch to that which we are used to seeing her in.  Victoria is popularly remembered as a perfect wife and mother, prim, proper, in awe of her husband, and inconsolable after his death.  In this new drama, we will see Victoria as someone who was in charge of her own destiny, and who ruled as a determined and confident woman.  So there’s something to look forward to as the nights begin to draw in!