Coram and the arts

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Throughout its history, the story of Coram has inspired art and artists alike.

The artist William Hogarth had a long association with the Hospital and was a founding governor.

The composer George Frideric Handel also supported the Hospital’s charitable work by giving benefit performances of his popular work in the chapel.

Several characters in Charles Dickens’ work were inspired by his involvement with the Hospital.

More recently, artists including Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and Cornelia Parker have created work that was inspired by stories of foundling loss and separation.

Writers such as Jacqueline Wilson, Jamila Gavin and Lemn Sissay have also based some of their work on foundling stories.

Reliquaries by Grayson Perry, from an exhibition at the Foundling Museum in 2011

Foundling token: a scrap of material

Life story

Social Work in 42 Objects (and more), curated by Mark Doel, is a collection of items that tell the life story of social work.

As you would expect, given Coram’s long-standing role in the care of children, it contains several items connected to our story.

The collection, which started as a blog, contains items chosen by ‘donors’ from 24 countries. All the donors are involved with social work.

Here are three objects in the collection that relate to Coram’s past and present.

Donor Harriet Ward, Professor of Child and Family Research and Director of the Centre for Child and Family Research, Loughborough University chose a token from the Foundling Hospital to be her ‘object’ because:

These tokens represent an enduring theme in social work – separation and loss…The tokens can be seen as emblems of the pain incurred when parents and children cannot live together, even when the separation is necessary and clearly in the interests of the child. – Harriet Ward

Tracey Emin, Baby Things (Mitten), 2008, © The artist, courtesy of Tracey Emin Studio. It was on display in an exhibition at the Foundling Museum in 2010.

Donor Dr Sue Taplin, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Suffolk, chose Mitten by Tracey Emin to be her ‘object’.

It has been created from a real baby’s mitten that was lost and abandoned but found by the artist, and cast in bronze. The mitten is now waving from railings outside the Foundling Museum.

It reminds me that good social work practice can bring strength and hope to people who are lost and vulnerable. – Sue Taplin

Tracey Emin, Baby Things (Mitten), 2008 © The artist, courtesy of Tracey Emin Studio. It was on display in an exhibition at the Foundling Museum in 2010.

Captain Coram, painted by William Hogarth

Donor Jane McLaughlin,  a writer and publisher in the field of social work chose William Hogarth’s painting of our founder Thomas Coram.

She describes him as:

Thomas Coram, the subject of this painting, was an early philanthropist pre-dating modern social work. His work endures in the Coram Foundation. – Jane McLaughlin

Stories in words

Art and literature frequently tells the stories of children who are without parents – for example, Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Superman and Cinderella.


Fictional foundlings, such as these, are recognized and honoured by the poet and playwright Lemn Sissay in his installation at the Foundling Museum Superman was a Foundling.

The aim is to reveal and elevate fictional stars of popular and classic culture who were fostered, adopted and orphaned.

Sissay himself spent 18 years in the care system, an experience, which he says has had a pronounced effect on his adult life.

I’m told that…18 years in children’s systems…was just to do with my childhood and I’ve realised very clearly as an adult that the effect of my childhood is more pronounced in my adulthood than it ever was in my childhood. – Lemn Sissay at the launch of Superman was a Foundling.

…and then

Charles Dickens grew up near the Foundling Hospital and was an early supporter, raising funds for it and writing about it in his work.

Oliver Twist, about an orphan boy, or ‘foundling’, is thought to have been inspired by the Hospital. Two other characters, Tattycoram in Little Dorrit and Walter Wilding in the play, No Thoroughfare, written in 1867, grow up in the Hospital’s care.

Lemn Sissay, Superman was a Foundling, 2014, © Lemn Sissay. Photograph: The Foundling Museum

Girls singing on a piano at the Foundling Hospital

Our musical heritage

Music was always part of the Foundling Hospital, right from its early days when Handel was a benefactor.

Children sang psalms, hymns and anthems and were encouraged to learn an instrument and join the Hospital band or orchestra.

Music would prove a route to success for many children, such as Charles Nalden. Born in 1908 and brought to the Foundling Hospital by his mother at just three weeks old, Charles took up the cornet and joined the school band. As a teenager he was offered a position in an army band, and he went on to become a successful bandmaster before gaining a doctorate in music from the University of London. He became a Professor of Music in New Zealand and was awarded a CBE for services to music.

Thomas Coram’s playlist

Thomas Coram’s life was bounded by music, from his earliest days at sea, when life on board merchant ships was played out to the rhythm of the songs sailors sang, to the fund-raising concerts conducted by Handel at the Foundling Hospital, which made the Hallelujah Chorus famous.
Coram’s greatest achievement was the establishment of the Foundling Hospital, as a place where children who might be abandoned or destitute could be taken and, in his utilitarian view, saved to be useful members of society.

Music was central to his plan; spiritually and physically, the hospital chapel was at the centre of the foundlings’ lives. Most would sing in the choir and learn to play instruments. Many of the boys went into military service as bandsmen.

Visitors flocked to attend Sunday services to hear the Foundling Hospital choir – in the 19th century, Charles Dickens is one of many famous names who rented a pew – and fundraising concerts have been an important feature throughout our 275-year history.

Coram’s commitment to helping people runs as a thread throughout his life; right up until his death, in his 84th year, he was putting projects together to help people.

We have compiled a playlist for Thomas Coram. Some of it is music he would probably have heard, some reflects his interests and concerns at the hospital and beyond, and some of it is music he would pick today as he continued to campaign and argue for vulnerable people.

Click to hear the pieces or visit our YouTube channel.

In 1749 the composer George Frideric Handel went to a meeting of the governors of the new Foundling Hospital, where the problem of raising money to complete the chapel was discussed. The minutes record the composer’s proposal, readily agreed by the governors:

Mr Handel being present and having generously and charitably offered a performance of vocal and instrumental music to be held at this Hospital, and that the money arising therefrom should be applied to the finishing the chapel of the Hospital.

Handel’s concert included the Foundling Hospital Anthem, ‘Blessed are they that considereth the poor’, which he composed specially for the concert, to be sung by the foundling children. The Prince and Princess of Wales attended, ensuring that the concert was a society event too. The chapel and church music were literally and spiritually at the centre of Thomas Coram’s plan for the Hospital, and fundraising concerts were crucial fundraising events.

This song, about the life of merchant sailors, was popular during Coram’s time although it dates back to King Henry VIII. He would certainly understand its sentiments. One of his last projects was to set up a bank in London to provide relief for sailors from New England suffering hardship in London.

As a merchant seaman himself, Thomas Coram might well have heard Three Poor Mariners sung on board ship, in the streets, and in coffee houses and taverns – he may well have sung it himself.

In the 1600s, this song was usually sung to a well-known dance tune; the tune and lyrics feature in an important and very popular work in the history of folk songs, Thomas D’Urfey’s Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy (vol i, 1698 and 1707). Many foundling boys went to sea – they left the care of the Foundling Hospital to serve in the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy and the Royal Marines.

John Gay’s satire, The Beggar’s Opera, written in 1728, was as much a landmark in musical performance as the new oratorio form that Handel’s chose for Messiah. Gay’s attacks on politics, poverty, corruption and injustice – and the fashion for Italian opera – are presented through ballads and songs.

Gay wrote the words and drew on popular songs of the time for tunes all could hum. Thomas Coram would recognise many of Gay’s targets and his letters suggest that he would probably have enjoyed Gay’s robust humour too. Coram understood the vulnerability of Gay’s female characters and of the young henchman Filch, as explained by Mrs Peachum here.

The dangers of life on the streets of London – especially the risks to women and their children, were the driving forces behind Coram’s 19-year campaign to establish the Foundling Hospital.

As a trustee, Thomas Coram was among the founders of the American colony of Georgia and had a major influence in shaping the laws and principles of the state. It was his intention for much of his life to return to America, so Hoagy Carmichael’s classic song – the official song of the state since 1979 – is particularly appropriate.

Ray Charles, who was born in Georgia, performs the best-known version but this is the original from 1930, with Carmichael himself singing and, on cornet, Bix Beiderbecke in one of his last recordings. 

Thomas Coram was fiercely loyal to the British monarchy in the manner this song suggests. The lyrics and music to Here’s a Health unto His Majesty were first published in 1667, in the reign of Charles II, and it remained a popular song throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

At that time, many of the boys brought up in the Foundling Hospital later served as bandsmen in the British Army. Fittingly, it is now the regimental marching tune of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

In Coram today the military links are long gone but music remains integral to our services. Our music therapists work with children with communication problems, in groups or individually, helping them to express themselves.

Thomas Coram believed in equal rights for men and women. He argued fiercely with his fellow trustees that Georgia should offer rights of inheritance to women on the same basis as men – and won the argument. He believed that education was at least  as vital for girls as for boys, and so it was from the start at the Foundling Hospital.

This song about rights for women was published in the feminist magazine thePhiladelphia Minerva in 1795, when Thomas Coram was living in America.

The song was clearly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, whose best-selling book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published in 1792.

Certainly a popular rhyme in Thomas Coram’s time, its origins are disputed. One theory is that the song refers to Blackbeard the pirate. Coram’s voyage to America would have taken him through the waters between the Carolinas and the Caribbean where Blackbeard (originally Edward Teach, c.1680-1718), the most feared pirate of the time, attacked merchant ships. Coram and his crew would have been on the lookout for pirates and Teach in particular.

In his old age, Thomas Coram would have heard the song sung in the streets of London. The first verse appeared in print in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, published in London around 1744.

It is tempting to imagine Thomas Coram sitting in his regular place outside the Foundling Hospital chapel, listening to foundlings singing this song and telling them about his adventures avoiding Blackbeard. But history isn’t that neat, so while he could have done so, we don’t know whether he did.

Handel was a key figure in the early days of the hospital. Following the success of the first concert, he came every year for the rest of his life to conduct a performance of the Messiah, raising the equivalent of £500,000 for the hospital.

He became a governor and in his will, left the hospital a fair copy of the score as well as an organ for the chapel. The performances at the hospital established Messiah as a major choral work with an international appeal.

We still celebrate our links to the famous composer, most recently in the ‘Sing for Coram’ Day in which 150 Coram supporters sang Handel choruses, to celebrate the granting of the Royal Charter 275 years ago.

Engraving of the Foundling Hospital chapel

Stories of loss

Today, artists from different creative disciplines continue to find inspiration in the stories of loss and separation that came out of the Foundling Hospital.

In 2011, the Foundling Museum exhibited clay reliquaries that were made during workshops with young mums and young people in care, adoption and supported housing from Coram. The workshops were led by the artist and Foundling Fellow, Grayson Perry.

The young people studied reliquaries alongside the Foundling Museum’s collection of tokens – small objects left by mothers with their babies as a means of identification should they ever return to the Foundling Hospital to claim their child.

The young people then created their own personal objects that would act as modern day tokens, exploring ideas of identity.

Pictured above: George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), Found Drowned, C.1848-1850, Oil On Canvas. © Watts Gallery Trust

From September 2015 to January 2016, the Foundling Museum staged an exhibition that focused on the myth and reality of the ‘fallen woman’ in Victorian Britain.

In an age when sexual innocence was highly valued and sex for a respectable woman was deemed appropriate only within marriage, the figure of the ‘fallen’ woman was popularly portrayed in art, literature and the media as Victorian moralists warned against the consequences of losing one’s virtue.

The exhibition brought  together the work of artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Richard Redgrave, Thomas Faed and George Frederic Watts.

In addition, newspaper illustrations and stereoscopes demonstrated how depictions of the fallen woman in popular culture also helped define a woman’s role and limitations within society.

The exhibition also explored the written petitions of women applying to the Foundling Hospital at the time. During the early 19th century, London’s Foundling Hospital changed its admission process to focus on restoring respectability to the mother. Only the petitions of previously ‘respectable’ women bearing their first illegitimate child were considered.

In order for something to be ‘found’, it has to at some point in its history been ‘lost’ – Cornelia Parker

Rachel Whiteread: Untitled Found 2016 © Rachel Whiteread

In 2016, artist and Foundling Fellow Cornelia Parker invited more than 60 artists from a range of creative disciplines to contribute to the Foundling Museum exhibition ‘Found’ either a new, or existing, piece of work, or an object that they found and kept for its significance.

Her inspiration was, in part, taken from the Foundling Museum’s collection of tokens.

Participating artists include: Ron Arad RA, Phyllida Barlow RA, Jarvis Cocker, Richard Deacon RA, Tacita Dean RA, Jeremy Deller, Brian Eno, Antony Gormley RA, Mona Hatoum, Thomas Heatherwick RA, Christian Marclay, Mike Nelson, Laure Prouvost, David Shrigley, Bob and Roberta Smith RA, Wolfgang Tillmans RA, Edmund de Waal, Marina Warner and Rachel Whiteread.

To discover more exhibitions exploring issues raised by the Foundling Hospital, visit the Foundling Museum website.