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The Foundlings, Engraving from the original painting by William Hogarth 1697-1764

The Foundlings, Engraving by William Hogarth 1697-1764

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

The artist William Hogarth had a long association with the Hospital and was a founding governor.  The Foundling Hospital Art Collection was created thanks to Hogarth, who donated many art works to the Hospital and encouraged the leading artists, such as Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, to do the same. 

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

A modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Pericles, staged at the National Theatre, included children and young people from Coram’s programmes.

Stories of adversity and hope have also inspired playwrights and performers who have explored poignant themes on stage and screen.

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

The March of the Guards to Finchley by William Hogarth, 1749-1750
© The Foundling Museum

Coram’s art collection

Through inspiring art, poignant artefacts, original period interiors and archival documents, visitors to The Foundling Museum can discover the story of how Thomas Coram and his creative supporters helped established the Foundling Hospital, and explore the lives of the children who grew up there from 1741-1954.

Works of art donated to the Hospital by Hogarth and other leading artists of the day, led to the creation of the Foundling Hospital Art Collection, England’s first public gallery which attracted a daily crowd of spectators and raised valuable funds for the children.

Many of the works were displayed in the Hospital dining room, so that the children could benefit from them. 

The Foundling Hospital Collection, owned by Coram, were retained through the years in the Hospital buildings and headquarters until  1998, when the charity decided that these items would be best preserved and cared for by establishing a separate museum charity, the Foundling Museum. The Collection is currently in the care of the Foundling Museum and includes paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures created and donated by Hogarth and others. The Foundling Museum is also responsible for the care and maintenance of the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, an internationally important library and archive relating to Handel and his musical contemporaries.

The works of art can be seen today at the Museum within original eighteenth-century interiors from the Foundling Hospital. When the Hospital was demolished in 1926 and relocated outside of London, the Committee Room, Court Room, Picture Gallery and staircase were reconstructed in what was the charity’s London headquarters and is now the Museum.  Plasterwork, fireplaces, furniture and clocks, made for and donated to the Hospital by leading craftsmen of the day can also be seen.

The Museum also has a programme of changing exhibitions and displays, which are often inspired by responses from contemporary artists to our Collection and story, and are shown alongside Collection objects.

Social Work in 42 Objects

Social Work in 42 Objects (and more), curated by Mark Doel, is a collection in book form of items that tell the life story of social work. It features several items connected to Coram’s past and present.

The objects, chosen by ‘donors’ from 24 countries, include the following three items, which can be viewed at The Foundling Museum.

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

Ladies of quality and distinction

The turning point in Thomas Coram’s campaign for children came when  ‘21 Ladies of quality and distinction’ signed his petition to King George II calling for the establishment of the Foundling Hospital.

Women permeate every aspect of the Foundling Hospital story; as mothers, supporters, wet nurses, staff, apprentice masters, artists, musicians, craftsmen and foundlings. Yet for almost 300 years, history has placed these women as a footnote to the story.

In 2018-2019, to mark 100 years of female suffrage, the portraits and often overlooked stories of these remarkable women were displayed together at The Foundling Museum, replacing the portraits of the Hospital’s better known male governors in the Picture Gallery.

The exhibition, ‘Ladies of Quality & Distinction’ brought these neglected stories to the fore. Downstairs in the Museum’s Exhibition Gallery, the lives of the women who supported the day-to-day running of the institution were also brought to life. Highlights included Mrs Prudence West, a female inspector and the only woman to run a branch Hospital; Miss Eleanor Barnes, one of the earliest female Governors; and Mrs Elizabeth Leicester, an early matron of the Foundling Hospital who oversaw some of its most challenging years.

Next door to the Foundling Museum, a complementary exhibition showcasing the life and legacy of the Hospital’s founder, Thomas Coram, is being held at Coram’s historic campus.

‘Thomas Coram: My Life and Legacy’ highlights Thomas Coram’s overseas work and travels in America, and his 17-year campaign to establish the Foundling Hospital.

The display features historic items from the Coram archive, including Thomas Coram’s prayer book – given to him by the Speaker of the House of Commons – and his Pocket Book bursting with contemporary notes including the names of the ‘Ladies of Quality and Distinction’.

Discover 'Thomas coram: My life and legacy'
Portrait of Elizabeth Brudenell, Countess of Cardigan

One of the 21 'Ladies of quality and distinction.

Godfrey Kneller, Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Bruce (afterwards Elizabeth Brudenell, Countess of Cardigan)

Coram and William Hogarth

Few people know that the English painter and satirist William Hogarth was so inspired by Coram that he devoted more than 25 years of his life to supporting the charity.

A self-made man, Hogarth was passionate about his friend’s vision to improve the lives of abandoned children and became involved first-hand in our work.

He made it his mission to use his artistic talents and influence to further advance our charitable cause.

When the first children entered the Foundling Hospital, Hogarth donated £120 of his own money and a magnificent painting of Captain Coram. Full length portraits were normally reserved for the nobility, so by devoting one to Thomas Coram, a sea captain from the merchant class, Hogarth was truly paying tribute to his friend and his vision of a better world for children.

“The portrait that I painted with most pleasure and in which I particularly wished to excel was that of Captain Coram” - William Hogarth

Hogarth donated many more art works to the Hospital, including Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter (above), and encouraged the leading artists of the day, such as Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, to do the same.

So, began the Foundling Hospital Art Collection, England’s first public gallery which attracted a daily crowd of spectators and raised valuable funds for the children.

Many of the works were displayed in the Hospital dining room, so that the children could benefit from them. This legacy of art and care continues today in our art therapy work.

Hogarth served on the Hospital’s Court of Governors and General Committee and designed its coat of arms and uniforms for the children to wear.

His commitment to children extended into his home life, too. With his wife, Jane, he invited children to visit his house, and supervised local wet-nurses (the closest thing to foster carers in those days), an idea ahead of its time.

You can view the Hospital’s Art Collection today at the Foundling Museum, including Hogarth’s masterpiece The March of the Guards to Finchley, which the artist gave to the Foundling Hospital via a lottery.   For more on the collection, visit the website of the Foundling Museum. This link to the Foundling Museum opens in a new window.

Source: Pugh, Gillian, London’s Forgotten Children: Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital (Stroud: Tempus, 2007)

William Hogarth, self portrait

Foundling token: a scrap of material

Threads of Feeling 

What would you give to the person you love most, if you might never see them again? What if that person was your child?

In 1739 when Coram was founded, unimaginable destitutionand poverty meant that many unmarried mothers faced abandoning their infants by the roadside, having no means to shelter and feed them themselves.

When Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital 275 years ago, suddenly, there was hope that these children might survive.

From the start, the Foundling Hospital made it possible for mothers to reclaim their babies if their circumstances changed.

Each baby left in its care was registered with a number and information to assist future identification. On the printed registration forms or 'billets', the sex of the child was noted, along with the clothes it was wearing, and any special distinguising marks.

In addition, the Hospital encouraged mothers to supply a 'token', which might be a note, or a small object, to be kept as an identifier should she ever come back to collect her baby.

Parted from those they treasured, mothers would give small tokens to the Hospital to identify them, if they could ever be reunited. Often fabric, they were either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the Foundling Hospital's nurses. 

They left coins, scraps of ribbon, even a button from their coat. 

“Pray let particular care be taken of this little child,” read one note pinned to the clothing of little Florella Burley, born on June 19th, 1758.   

“You have my heart, though we must part”, the engraving on a heart-shaped, silver-coloured token. 

James and Elizabeth hoped to reclaim their daughter Ann, their note promising to “have her home again when they get over the little trouble they are in”.

Britain’s largest 18th century fabric collection

The overwhelming majority of the tokens were little pieces of fabric, often with an accompanying letter or statement.

The tokens were kept in Coram’s billet books as an identifying record for more than 4,000 babies handed to the hospital between 1741 and 1760.  Amounting to some 5,000 individual items attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, they form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th century.

Occasionally children were reclaimed, and the pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother.

Because of their purpose to identify a child, they consist mainly of patterned and colourful fabrics. But there are also many examples of plain fabrics worn by ordinary women.

In the 18th century, material literacy, where certain objects were used to mark events, express allegiances and forge relationships, was familiar and widely shared. 

Often, the hopes the mothers invested in their babies were expressed in the fabric. Fabric showing an acorn or a bud might suggest new growth, a bird or a butterfly the chance to fly free, a flower the capacity to blossom and fruit.

But the most direct expressions of maternal emotion found among the tokens are those that showed a heart, the established symbol of love.

Foundling mothers left hearts playing cards, embroidered hearts, hearts cut out of fabric and even, in the case of one baby boy, a gown printed with a hearts playing-card pattern.

A selection of “tokens of love” related gifts are available to buy from Coram’s online shop here

'Threads of Feeling', a highly successful exhibition of the founding textiles, held in 2010 and 2011 at the Foundling Museum, showcased never-before seen fabrics that illustrate the poignant parting of mothers and their babies at the Foundling Hospital.

Thousands of visitors flocked to see the beautiful textiles, embedded in a rich social history, each swatch reflecting the life of a single infant child. The exhibition explained that baby clothes were usually made up from worn-out adult clothing and the fabrics revealed how working women struggled to be fashionable in the 18th century.

“In the face of such testaments of tenderness, words are redundant.” The Independent, 2010

Two years later, the exhibition was also showcased The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg in the United States.

A book by John Styles to accompany the exhibition, also called Threads of Feeling (the London Foundling Hospital's Textile Tokens), is available from Amazon and the Foundling Museum shop.

View our slideshow of images from the Young Citizens Stranger Series photography project

Young Citizens: The Stranger Series photography project

In 2018, Coram's Young Citizens partnered with the professional photographer Arteh Odjidja on his portrait-based series 'Strangers'. Over a number of workshops, Arteh supported the young people to develop their photography skills and to refine their unique creative voices.

This project aims to challenge discrimination and negative stereotypes by championing the contributions of young migrants. Through their photos they showcase their desire to make a difference to their own lives and the lives of others.

During Refugee Week 2018, the photographs were displayed in London at the British Museum, City Hall and Doughty Street Chambers. A visitor to the British Museum said:

It warms my heart to see such inspiring young individuals tell their stories and fight for a better future

Films were also produced during the project. The film here  features the final day of the project when the Young Citizens met inspirational change-makers from migrant backgrounds: Bisi Alimi; Shahd Abusalama; and Gulwali Passarlay. They heard their stories, shared their hopes for change and captured their portraits on camera.

Coram’s Young Citizens is a voluntary ambassador programme for 16-25 year olds from migrant and refugee backgrounds. The group work together to shape projects tackling issues facing migrant children and young people today.

The Stranger Series project was supported by Leica Camera UK

Respected and protected: The Rights of Children exhibition

There is no doubt that in most cases children’s lives are significantly better than they were during Thomas Coram’s lifetime. But a cycle of inequality, exploitation, deprivation and loss persists, which must not be tolerated is if it were inevitable.

The importance of children’s rights and their slow but steady historical evolution, were showcased in the exhibition Respected and Protected: The Rights of Children, at the Central Family Court in London. 

The exhibition examined four key strands of children’s rights and how they have evolved. These are Identity, Education, Work and Military Service. The first of its kind, the exhibition creatively used the space provided a powerful and moving visual context for the work of the Central Family Court, using a blend of quotes, images and artefacts to illustrate the development of children’s rights.

British children arrive in Australia, circa 1938. Image courtesy of Respected and Protected: The Rights of Children exhibition at the Central Family Court, London 2017. 

Exhibits highlighted children’s experiences from tying threads in a mill to firing guns on a battleship and the work of the progressive activists that brought them into the comparative safety of the Victorian school room and then the era of human rights. It included an interactive nineteenth century classroom complete with a speaking schools mistress, as well as mock trials for school groups. The world’s first child human rights charter - the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, was also on display.

The ambitious venture, which ran for six months in 2017, brought together knowledge, expertise and resources from a wide range of institutions, including Coram, the Foundling Museum, the Museum of Childhood, Save the Children, and was supported by Thomson Reuters.

The Declaration of the Rights of Children, on display in the Respected and Protected exhibition

Call for change: Respected and protected report

In January 2018, Coram launched Respected and protected, a report and ‘call for change’ highlighting some of the issues faced by children and young people today. The report identifies eight areas for improvement to ensure that all children have the best possible future.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the child (UNCRC) is a broad treaty providing comprehensive protection for children’s social, economic, cultural and civil rights.

The UK is signed up the treaty but it isn’t incorporated in domestic law in England or Northern Ireland. Limited rights are enshrined in Scottish law while in Wales, ministers are required to have due regard to the rights contained in it.

As the UK negotiates its future outside the European Union, there is an opportunity to ensure that vital rights for children are protected through the full incorporation of the UNCRC into UK law.

At any one time there are more than 70,000 children in England reliant on the state for their care. The complexities and inconsistencies of the system mean that many children are unaware of their rights and unsure of where to turn for help. 

Every child deserves to be part of a secure loving family. But statistics show that a growing number of children need the protection, either for a short time or permanently, of local authority care. This rise has been attributed to problems in households, such as poverty, poor housing and substance misuse, and the lack of targeted family support or early intervention services.

Children’s rights are only a reality if children and young people understand them and can take action to exercise them. Without advocacy and legal support, many children are left unable to access accommodation and services they need or the immigration system to secure their status. Public legal education and legal aid for those who cannot afford to pay for lawyers is a key part of any system that protects and promotes the rights of children.

Across the country, children and young people who have grown up here are living in ‘legal limbo’: they believe they are British but don’t have the right immigration documents. Thousands of children who have come seeking protection are given temporary permission to stay, only to be removed when they turn 18. Due to high fees, a lack of quality free legal advice, and a complex, inaccessible immigration and asylum system, these young people are unable to fully be part of the country they call home and find themselves unable to continue their education or access services.

As Britain rearticulates its relationship with the European Union, it is critical that any new rules governing the rights of European nationals in the UK after Brexit must be workable and fair, and take into account the rights of children and young people who have grown up in this country.

As the first digital-first generation, children today face new risks and pressures. We need new approaches to help young people to navigate the world they live in. Schools and colleges have a front line role in promoting and protecting children and young people’s well-being, enabling them to make positive lifestyle choices and support each other. Parents and carers need support in identifying troubling behaviour and to know how to help their children before difficulties become entrenched, or when referral to specialist services is not available. 

For some children in care, the traumatic experiences they have suffered will require more intensive or multi-professional support to enable them to recover. 

Too many children lose out on a school education, because they have undiagnosed or unmet special educational needs, are temporarily or permanently excluded, or face bullying and stigmatisation. Poor literacy, social and communication disorders are over-represented amongst children and young people in contact with the criminal justice system.

If needs cannot be met in any particular setting or they change, children and families must be able to rely on transparent process with clear advice, effective assessment and timely planning to secure educational entitlement.

Too many children experience a postcode lottery when it comes to their care with delivery often compromised by a lack of resources and workforce. Children’s social care should ensure a national consistent minimum standard where the overall quality is raised and there is consistency in access to support. 

Respected and Protected report

What Coram is doing now

To find out more about how Coram is tackling the issues children and young people face today and the changes we would like to see, see our: