To the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury yesterday – a Sunday – a charity initiated by the great philanthropist Thomas Coram with the help of Hogarth and Handel and opened in 1739. Coram saw too many abandoned babies dying on the streets of London and was moved to act.
It’s a place that never fails to touch the maternal emotions and this time my eye was caught by a large Victorian painting by Henry Nelson O’Neil called ‘A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris’. This French institution was started sixty or so years before Thomas Coram’s and took in all-comers. The tiny baby sits in a basket ready to be ‘posted’ through a hole in the external wall and into the care of the orderlies. The mother leans weakly into the grating and reaches for the bell-pull to let the hospital know that she is there. She has thrown off her pretty pink bonnet and let her shawl slip to the floor in her misery – O’Neill’s way of showing how little she cares for worldly things while this tragedy unfolds. The baby reaches out for her and the mother’s face already has the haunted quality of how the loss of her child will affect her. It is the perfect example of the way Victorian painters never held back in piling on the emotions to illuminate what they felt about the the struggle between sin and morality. Such images were vital in gaining financial support from wealthy donors – you can hardly condemn this mother because she is clearly suffering enough – and you can certainly not condemn the child. But we should not look away from this picture and dismiss it as history. One of the Coram Charity‘s other roles is in the gathering of statistics: at this time last year there were just under 700,000 children in care, in homes, throughout the United Kingdom. And the numbers are rising.