My main reason for visiting the Foundling Museum was to see their contribution to the wealth of Georgian exhibitions this year, By George! Handel's Music for Royal Occasions. This being my first visit to the museum, however, I got completely entranced by their permanent displays, and spent most of my time on these. The introductory gallery is probably the most moving I’ve found an exhibition since I first visited the Imperial War Museum’s excellent Holocaust exhibition about seven years ago. It explains how and why the hospital was founded, and what life was like for the foundlings. There are letters from mothers requesting that their baby is taken in by the hospital, one particularly memorable one explaining the rape that led to the conception of the child. Most moving were the books with ribbons attached and the foundling tokens (often every day objects, sometimes engraved or embellished in some way) that were left with the babies to help identify them should the parents ever come to collect them. Most, sadly, were never reunited. One piece of text commented that the level of distress exhibited by those whose children were taken was almost equal to that of those who were turned away.
The hospital has a long relationship with eminent artists throughout the ages. William Hogarth and George Frideric Handel were among some of the first, but they have objects on display by Jacqueline Wilson, David Shrigley, Charles Dickens, and many others. Wandering around the rest of the building you see some original eighteenth century interiors, and can enjoy the impressive collection of art held there. It’s a fairly quiet museum, and so you can enjoy these rooms at your own pace, and absorb your surroundings. They don’t have lots of explanatory signage ruining the display, but there are booklets for those wanting to find out more, and informative, friendly staff on hand.
They also have an impressive collection of Handel memorabilia, including his will. The room is a peaceful one where you can enjoy some of his music and see some original scores and other items relating to his connection with the hospital. Once I’d done soaking up all the wonderful permanent displays, I headed down to the basement for the royal music display. Wandering around accompanied by Handel’s music you learn about the various royal occasions he composed for, how the pieces were received, and how he sometimes recycled parts of compositions to maintain his prolific output. Again, there are some lovely images on display. One thing I’ve never seen at an exhibition before is the use of digital images rather than original items. To my shame I spent less time on these. Although I can absolutely see the benefit of using high quality digital images of items that presumably otherwise wouldn’t be able to be included, it just doesn’t capture the attention when placed in the room with original scores and paintings.
The Foundling Museum is a wonderful, wonderful place, and I feel I’ve been missing out all these years having never visited before. It’s a great place to spend a few hours, learn a lot, and see some incredible artwork. Their By George! Handel's Music for Royal Occasions exhibition runs until 18th May.