The Foundling Museum whose exhibit Threads of Feeling I wrote about here, is situated in Brunswick Square. I thought you might like to know a little more about the museum, the original Foundling Hospital and the connection between that institution and the use of Brunswick Square by Jane Austen in my favourite of all her novels, Emma.
Here is a section from my copy of Smith’s New Map of London (1809) which shows the original hospital buildings, which were, by that time, in the newly developed Brunswick Square.
The Foundling Hospital was founded by Captain Thomas Coram, and it was the first home for abandoned children to be established in England, though on the continent there were many long established examples of such institutions. For example, the Conservatorio della Ruota, in Rome was one such home and was founded by Pope Innocent III in the thirteenth century. Thomas Coram retired to Rotherhithe in 1719 after achieving financial success in the New World, establishing a shipwright’s business in Boston, Massachusetts and later in Taunton, also in Massachusetts.
This is his magnificent portrait painted by William Hogarth, which is still on display in the Foundling Museum.
On his frequent walks through London on winter mornings, Coram was appalled at the sight of dead and dying babies abandoned on the streets. This tragedy spurred him into action. His petitioned the king for a charter to create a non-profit-making organization supported by subscriptions to house and educate such children, but at first this idea was rebuffed, as the establishment , both church and politicians, were worried that such an institution would encourage wantonness and prostitution. Eventually George II’s consort, Queen Caroline, became sympathetic to Coram’s aims, having been impressed by the establishment of a similar institution in Paris which had received the support of many fashionable women of the day.
On 17 October 1739 the King signed a Royal Charter, bringing the Foundling Hospital into existence, a place established for the
‘education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’.
The Governors and Guardians of the Hospital met at Somerset house in the Strand to receive the Charter on 20th November 1739. The group included many of the important figures of the day: dukes and earls, magnates and merchant bankers, such as George Arnold depicted by Hogarth below,
Dr Richard Mead, the foremost physician of the day, Captain Coram and Hogarth.
The Hospital was designed by Theodore Jacobsen as a plain brick building consisting as you can see, above, of two wings either side a central chapel, built around an open courtyard. The western wing was finished in October 1745. An eastern wing was added in 1752 in order to house the girls separately from the boys.
The Foundling Hospital was first built on this site in the 1740s, known then as Bloomsbury Fields, in order to house the children in an area known for its good air, on the edge of London away from the insanitary and crowded conditions of the city. The foundlings were originally housed in a building in Hatton Gardens, until the new building was ready to receive them.
William Hogarth and his wife Jane were very important patrons of the Hospital. A childless couple, they became very involved with the day to day running of the hospital and were active fundraisers. Hogarth designed the children’s uniforms,
the Hospital’s Coat of Arms, and he was an Inspector for Wet Nurses( the children admitted as babies were farmed out to villages surrounding London to be brought up initially by wet nurses in the good and clean air of the countryside before returning to the Hospital to be educated and made ready to be apprenticed out to a trade) William and Jane Hogarth also fostered foundling children when they left the institution.
Hogarth also and very importantly donated works of art to decorate the walls of the hospital as the Governors were unwilling to spend money on such unnecessary ornaments He gave many works including this, The March to Finchley
which is still part of the Museum’s collection.
His example encouraged other artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and Francis Hayman to donate paintings to the Founding Hospital, and the Court Room of the Hospital, shown below, became in effect the first Public Art Gallery in London, where playing customers could come to look at the magnificent art on display, their enthusiasm for art producing a significant income for the Hospital.
Though the original Foundling Hospital Building no longer exists( it was demolished in 1926) the Court Room where these painting were originally on display to the public, has survived. It was dismantled and stored and then installed in the new Foundling Museum building at 40 Brunswick Square in 1937.
My Twitter Friend, Patrick Baty of Papers and Paints was involved in the restoration of the room, and discovered this magnificent ( in his words) ”mucky green” to have been the original paint colour on the walls. The room still is use as the Governor’s meeting room, and has a magnificent Rococo plasterwork ceiling created by William Wilton, and a marble overmantle by John Michael Rysbrack.
Here is Hogarth’s stunningly beautiful painting, Moses Brought to Pharaoh’s Daughter which was painted specifically to hang in the Court Room. The subject matter is, of course, entirely appropriate for the hospital, showing the moment when Moses is about the breach the tremendous gulf between his impoverished state as an abandoned child, to accepting being helped by the magnificently attired Pharaoh’s daughter.
George Frederick Handel was also a patron of the hospital, donating the profits of his work, The Messiah to it. Concerts were also directed by him (The Messiah was performed annually) and performances open to the paying public were held in the chapel, the place where all the foundling children were baptized each Sunday after having been admitted to the hospital is shown below: this illustration comes for my copy of The Micrcosm of London published by Rudolph Ackermann, and was executed by Rowlandson and Pugin, circa 1808.
He is celebrated on the top floor of the Museum where there is a room with comfortable chairs fitted with speaker where is it possible to sit and listen to selections from his works. The Museum holds manuscript copies of many of Handel’s works including the Messiah.
The Governors of the Foundling Hospital decided to develop their land surrounding the Hospital in 1790 when they lost their very important Government grant, and they commissioned the builder, James Burton, to create a garden square surrounded on three sides by town houses. Construction began with the south side, which was completed in 1801. The square was named after Caroline of Brunswick, wife of The Prince of Wales.
The square was, as you can see from Smith’s map above, then on the very outskirts of developed London and was still regarded as a place of “good air” when Jane Austen was writing Emma in 1814 .And it was here that Jane Austen chose to house John Knightley and his wife, the hypochondriacally inclined Isabella, nee Woodhouse. JAne Austen as ever made her choice of their home very carefully. The square was not uber- smart like the developments in the west ,but was, in truth, socially smart enough for that second son of the gentry, detester of High Society and barrister, John Knightley, Significantly it was not far from the Inns of Court, where he would no doubt have had his chambers. And of course, being famous for its salubrious position enabled Isabella to be able to honestly reassure her health obsessed father in Chapter 12 of Emma that
“No, indeed — we are not at all in a bad air. Our part of London is so very superior to most others! You must not confound us with London in general, my dear sir. The neighbourhood of Brunswick Square is very different from almost all the rest. We are so very airy! I should be unwilling, I own, to live in any other part of the town; — there is hardly any other that I could be satisfied to have my children in: — but we are so remarkably airy! Mr. Wingfield thinks the vicinity of Brunswick Square decidedly the most favourable as to air.”
And it was of course while staying with the Knightleys in Brunswick Square that Harriet Smith-the natural Daughter of Somebody- was finally reconciled with Robert Martin. How very appropriate. And I’m sure,very deliberately done on Jane Austen’s part.
The original building that housed the Foundling Hospital no longer exists: it was demolished in 1926. The Hospital moved the foundling children still in its care to a new school at Redhill in Surrey. In 1935 the school moved to a new purpose-built school at Berkhamsted, in Hertfordshire. Seven acres of the original site was purchased to be preserved as a playground for children in this now deprived inner city area of London and this eventually became administered by an independent charity, known as Coram’s Fields.
The Foundling Hospital bought back 2.5 acres of the land and in 1937 Number 40 Brunswick Square was built in the Square to serve as the administrative headquarters for the Foundling Hospital and a museum, together with a Children’s Centre in 1939. The hospital then began a new life as the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, today known as Coram (insert link). Brunswick Square has subsequently been re developed and bears little resemblance to the home of the cadet branch of the Knightley family ( all the original Georgian houses have been replaced over the years by modern University of London buildings including the School of Pharmacy and International Hall and also the Brunswick housing and retail complex). It still retains the garden in the centre of the square, which was restored in 2009, and still has a beautiful plane tree as its centrepiece.
I do hope that you have enjoyed reading about the connections between the Foundling Hospital and Jane Austen, and that you might also visit the Museum one day.