The Foundling Hospital Collection

The Foundling Hospital Collection spans four centuries and contains paintings, sculpture, prints, manuscripts, furniture, clocks, photographs and ephemera. Some of the most poignant items in the Collection are the foundling tokens.  These were pinned by mothers to their baby’s clothes and upon entry, the Hospital would attach them to the child’s record of admission. As foundling babies were given new names, these tokens helped ensure correct identification, should a parent ever return to claim their child. The children were not allowed to keep their tokens, which were frequently everyday objects, such as a coin or button. The Hospital gradually evolved a more sophisticated administrative system, whereby mothers were issued with receipts. So the practice of leaving tokens died out at the beginning of the nineteenth century. 


The Foundling Hospital Art Collection began in 1740, when William Hogarth donated his magnificent portrait of Captain Thomas Coram.  This painting commemorated George II signing the Charter for the Hospital’s establishment. Encouraged by Hogarth, many of the leading artists of the day supported the Hospital in its early years. Hogarth donated further artworks, as did contemporaries including Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Hudson, Allan Ramsay, Joshua Reynolds, Louis-François Roubiliac and John Michael Rysbrack.  In 1857 the Hospital Governors decided to create a designated ‘Picture Room’ to best display and preserve the Hospital’s Art Collection.

Although the original Hospital building was torn down in the 1920s, the Foundling Museum contains many elements of the original interiors.  These include the fully restored Court Room with its glorious rococo plasterwork; recreations of the Committee Room and the Picture Gallery; the oak staircase from the Hospital’s West Wing and two altarpieces, the font and pews from the Hospital’s Chapel. 

Integral to the Court Room’s design are four large scale biblical paintings by Hogarth, Francis Hayman, Joseph Highmore and James Wills and between them, roundels depicting topographical scenes of London Hospitals by artists including Gainsborough, Samuel Wale and Richard Wilson. The sculptor John Michael Rysbrack produced the marble relief set into John Devall’s marble chimney piece.

The Collection contains significant nineteenth century art, including works by John Everett Millais and Thomas Benjamin Kennington. Although women were not involved in the governance of the Hospital until the twentieth century, the Collection also holds works by the Victorian artists, Emma Brownlow and Sophia Anderson, which depict everyday life at the Hospital.The painting collection can be searched online via the BBC's Your Paintings website. 



The Hospital acquired considerably less art in the twentieth century, but continued the tradition of having fashionable artists of the day paint portraits of its Governors. The Collection continues to expand, most recently with the preservation of oral histories of former foundlings, whose childhood memories from the first half of the twentieth century are graphically preserved in audio interviews, photographs and film. These oral histories, titled Foundling Voices can be viewed online. Thanks to an anonymous donation in 2010 the Museum was able to acquire Baby Things, Mitten by Tracey Emin which was originally displayed as part of the exhibition Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin & Paula Rego: At the Foundling. This tiny bronze cast, a gift from the artist and a private donor, is permanently displayed outside the Museum on the railing behind Thomas Coram's statue, a contemporary response to our eighteenth century tokens.

 Images: Taking Leave, 1868, by Emma King (Brownlow) (1832-1905) © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum and Tracey Emin, Baby things [Mitten], 2008, patinated bronze // Copyright Tracey Emin // Image courtesy Tracey Emin Studio // Collection The Foundling Museum // Photo: Chris Tribble