What do Handel, Hogarth and homeless children have in common?  The Foundling Hospital and its modern day successor the Foundling Museum, that’s what.   The Foundling Hospital was both the first children’s charity and the first public art gallery, an unusual combination.  Come with me and discover the fascinating story at the Foundling Museum.


Today visitors to the Foundling Museum can see the art collection that was started by Hogarth and continues to grow with contemporary artists donating work, as well as learning about the hospital and some of the 25,000 children that it helped over the years.

On the ground floor there is a gallery telling the stories of mothers and the children that they left behind.  Mothers would leave a token behind, if circumstances changed they could come a reclaim the child by showing the matching token.  Only the tokens of the unreclaimed children remain.  It is heartbreaking to see so many and to know that there are many thousands more in the archives.

Foundling Museum Token

The children slept in large dormitories, as you stand and look at the small bed a recording of some of the last children to live in the hospital is played.  It was not a place of midnight feasts and jolly japes.

Foundling Hospital dormitory

Hogarth and Lily Cole take up position on opposite walls in the room in which you enter the art gallery part of the museum.  Hogarth’s morality tale looks down the room at a screen playing a short film by the former supermodel, that tells the heart rending story of women leaving their babies at the hospital.

Hogarth Foundling Museum

Although the current building dates from the 1930’s several of the fixtures and fitting from the original Georgian buildings were used meaning that when you ascend the portrait strewn staircase you feel as if you are in a centuries old building.  One the first turn of the stairs is the latest portrait to enter the collection, it is also the first of a woman.  That woman is the children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson.  Following in the tradition of artists creating work that brings people to the Foundling Museum, Dame Jacqueline has created the Hetty Feather series of books with the heroine being a Victorian Foundling.  The portrait is by Saied Dai and was commissioned by Dame Stephanie Shirley.

Jacqueline Wilson portrait Foundling Museum

Once you step into the Court room the illusion of Georgian splendour is complete.  I am not sure what is more amazing in this room the fabulous over top decoration of the Rococo room or the face that it was painstakingly moved from the old buildings to be exactly recreated.  Look up to the ornately molded plaster ceiling and try to work out how they moved it and where the joins are.  

Court room Foundling Museum

Right at the top of the building you will find the Gerald Coke Handel Library.  If you need to do some research about Handel this is the place to come.  If not that take time to reline in the rather wonderful wing chairs, they have speakers in the wings and you can select experts of Handel’s music to listen to whilst you relax.

Handel Wing Chair


The Foundling Museum plays host to a series of temporary exhibitions. This time the focus is on one of the painting that Hogarth donated to the Foundling Hospital right back at the beginning of the project.


Finally in 1739 a Royal Charter was granted and a ‘hospital for the maintenance and eduction of exposed and deserted young children’ was opened.  Children was fed, housed and educated at the hospital for the next 225 years.  When the hospital shut its doors the charity turned its focus on helping children into foster homes, it continues its work today under the name of Coram.  

Foundling Museum exterior

Care of the children was funded with the help of William Hogarth and Georg Frederic Handel, two of the leading artists of the time.  Hogarth donated work to the hospital and persuaded his friends to do the same, people of fashion began to flock to what became the first public art gallery.  Handel donated an organ to the Hospital and put on regular benefit performances of the Messiah.  When he died, Handel left a fair copy of the Messiah score enabling the annual benefit concerts to continue.


Thomas Coram was a shipbuilder, when he returned to London after 11 years in America, he saw a booming city. Industry was thriving and some people were getting very rich. At the other end of the scale there was huge poverty. Many women unable to look after their children were simply abandoning them. Moved by their plight Thomas Coram decided to do something about it but needed a Royal Charter for his plans to work. For seventeen years he worked tirelessly getting enough signatures together for King George III to consider and then grant the charter.

Thomas Coram statue



Foundling Museum London
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