If you’ve never been there, the Foundling museum rests in the far north east corner of Coram fields, just east of the Brunswick centre. It is the museum on the old site of the foundling hospital where children could be left by parents who couldn’t care for them. Lots of interesting people were involved in its early foundation including Hogarth and Handel. As a result there are more than a few Hogarth’s on display. Handel wrote the messiah to raise money for the hospital and left the manuscripts and the rights to them in his will. You can see the will and some of the manuscripts on display in the Handel room.
Foundling’s, when left at the hospital where left with tokens. Often several tokens. Thus if their parents ever wanted to reclaim them (examples above), the simply had to describe the tokens. There are two cases of those tokens on display and they make for a fascinating collection especially when you consider their unique resonance. A by product of this practice is that the Foundling Museum has the largest collection of historic fabrics in Britain. There is a fee to enter, although it is not much and if you have an Art Pass, it is free.
There are a number of grand paintings in the museum, my favourite of which is the centre of these three that climb the stairs with you (above). The one of the far right by the way is called “The Pinch of Poverty” and is a bit too winsome and moralistic for my tastes but I do like the portrait of Mrs Forbes by William Carter. She is looking slightly severe but it is the textured background that really does it for me.
The star of my visit, and the reason I highly suggest you go, is to be found in the basement. It is an exhibit called The Lost Words by Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane. The good photos are taken from the website. You can take photos at the show but the light is dim and you cannot use a flash so they are a bit, well dark.#
The theme is the detachment of children in London from nature and an attempt to reacquaint them. To do this there a series of poems about the Wren, the Bramble, the Lark, the Fern and so on. Each poem is accompanied by three paintings. One is a gold backed icon like piece, one a watercolour of the object in question, and one a sort of loose and sparse sketch. The plump heron, strutting passed the gold background has quite an oriental feel about it. I like the way in all of these the gold is marked and scratched with black.
The kingfisher, perching on a solitary branch, eyeing you suspiciously has a similar feel, although here, to compliment the bird, the scratches in the gold are done in blue.
In the Bramble the gold is given a much more greenish tint presumably to emphasize the plan nature of the subject. Also the blackberries look delicious. A similar tone is given to the Acorn and the Conker (above)
The best of the sparse sketches was for the Wren, where you just have the suggested outline of a bird, mouth open in song, purchased atop a bramble, with its song lifting up into the air. It’s a very good composition.
Coming a close second is that of the Magpie, where two birds are depicted merely as blank spaces in the spikey branches.
My favourite triad are those that of the Starling. The sparse sketch is just two empty power lines, and then the watercolour is the same power lines, now inundated with a torrent of birds (above, if you can see it). The golden icon type piece, has a starling in all its mottled iridescent, sitting firmly centre page.
Charming is a description that can be a bit damning with feint praise, but it is not meant to be in this instance. This is an exhibition that is utterly charming, and of very high quality. Go, and buy the book afterwards. There is more in the book than there is on the walls.
On my way home I passed a series of posters, on the outside of a construction hoarding on Euston Road. They showed artwork by the local primary school. Whoever produced this piece (above) from year 6 (which makes them about 11), is disgustingly talented.
Now for some self promotion. My show has just over a week to run at the Indo Bar. Go along and tell me what you think.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.