William Hogarth and the Foundling Hospital

This portrait by William Hogarth is a starter pistol for really the beginning of the contemporary British art world as we understand it today Many of the things we associate with contemporary British art its popularity, its fashionability, its philanthropy started with this painting of Thomas Coram Thomas Coram was the great philanthropist whose idea the Foundling hospital had been and it was his 17 year campaign to get this hospital established that was supported by William Hogarth This painting was the first work of art to be donated to the hospital which was itself, was the UK’s first children’s charity William Hogarth had a very unusual upbringing his father made the slightly unwise decision to open a Latin only speaking coffee shop which not unsurprisingly went belly up and in the 18th century if you were bankrupt it wasn’t just you that went into prison your whole family went into prison so for 5 years of Hogarth’s childhood he was in the Fleet debtors prison so he knew first hand that bad things happened to good people and there was really no system to support them and help them Hogarth was somebody who was drawn to scenes of everyday London life sequential stories that were told out over a series of prints about the escapades and the downfalls of foolish young people in a sinful city And he also filled the images with cameo parts of popular people of the day kind of like a Hello or a Grazia you could spot famous people as you looked at these images and at the same time spot people who were just like you in them But Hogarth knew that to be successful just as a printmaker wasn’t enough in terms of his status so a work like this portrait which he considered to be his finest portrait this was a real statement about the sort of ambition he had for his painting So at first sight this portrait looks fairly unremarkable you see you see Hogarth using a number of the techniques that were attributed to Baroque portraiture You would expect the sitter to be standing or seated so you the viewer would be looking up at them They would be surrounded by objects that spoke to their own personal wealth because these would obviously be aristocratic and wealthy people and then usually they might be seated in grand rolling landscapes because they themselves owned large amounts of land or they would be on a Roman ruin You can see Hogarth in this portrait doing some of that Is there a column? Tick, yes there is, a large piece of kind of Roman antiquity Is there a distant view? Yes, you can see rolling seas but as you look more closely There are other things in the picture which are quite unusual Most noticeably, Thomas Coram is wearing his own hair he’s not wearing a wig And this was very unusual because for elegant aristocratic people they wore wigs His face is very ruddy there’s been no attempt to cover up the fact that his nose and cheeks have lots of thread veins in them His coat is quite crumpled and rumpled it’s beautiful red, but it’s slightly shabby the impression that you get from this man is the sense of somebody who is anxious to get up and get on and do something And this is Hogarth indicating to the viewer what this man was like Perhaps most prominently the sunlight is shining on the royal charter this scrolled document with the huge seal And this really was the lifetime achievement of Thomas Coram This was the permission from the King to enable him to establish a Foundling Hospital a charity that would look after babies who would otherwise have been abandoned on the street The foundling hospital wasn’t just the UK’s first children’s charity it was also the UK’s first public art gallery In the 18th century, there weren’t really any places to see contemporary British art So Hogarth was an incredible entrepreneur he realised that Coram was building this brand new, huge building to house these foundling children and he realises that this new building has lots of empty wall space so in donating this painting he then persuades all of the leading artists of the day artists like Ramsey, Reynolds, Gainsborough to donate as well and within a matter of years it becomes one of the most fashionable places for educated people to come to visit And of course once they were here, as well as seeing the art they could see the children having their meals, doing their lessons singing in the choir and their heart strings would be plucked and they would give money but these were also precisely the kind of people who might commission these artists to paint work for them so it was a win-win situation Hogarth instituted an annual dinner every November for the artists governors and we have records of the amount that was eaten and drunk these were riotous affairs But also it was an opportunity for artists to all get together and probably have a bit of a moan about the state of British art The Foundling Hospital became the seedbed for the founding of the Royal Academy of arts which was established in 1768 That all started here and it all was triggered by this work This portrait of Thomas Coram not only enabled Hogarth to position himself as a painter of real skill and note Hogarth literally helped save children’s lives There are people that come into this museum who introduce themselves by saying I’ve been doing some research into my ancestry and I’ve discovered an ancestor was a Foundling And you are looking at somebody who is alive and walking the planet in the 21st century thanks to the work of people like Hogarth and Coram who turned an idea for a children’s charity into a reality and in doing so shaped the contemporary British art scene in ways they would never have foreseen and really the contemporary art world as we understand it and as we enjoy it really can trace its origins back to this painter and in many ways this painting

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