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A quote from the opening sentence of a Charles Dickens article of 1853. It refers to the entry form at the Foundling Hospital which carries the words The <Blank> Day of <Blank> Received a <Blank>Child. The near contemporary form, below, illustrates this perfectly. Note the Note: The sad truth is that fewer than one in a hundred children were ever reclaimed by their parent (almost invariably the mother).

Receipt for a child received into the Foundling Hospital

Receipt for a child received into the Foundling Hospital, 30 April 1855. © Coram

The signature is of John Brownlow (1800 – 1873), the Secretary of the hospital and himself a Foundling. He and Dickens were friends and collaborators. For a time the author lived just around the corner in Doughty Street, and he and Mrs Dickens rented pews in the Foundling chapel until they moved too far away for this to be practical. There is a letter from Dickens to this effect on display.

The Foundling Hospital for unwanted young children and babies was founded a century previous by Captain Coram with support from Hogarth, Handel and other London worthies. This new exhibition – Received, a Blank Child – fast forwards a century to show us what the institution was like in the Victorian period and it tells us about the people involved, primarily Brownlow and Dickens. Hence this is a most appropriate show to wrap up Dickens’s bicentenary.

Reproduction of ŒJohn Brownlow as an Old Man¹, c.1870 b

John Brownlow as an Old Man, 1870.

Dickens cited or used foundlings in his work on several occasions:

In the halls of the blank children, the Guards forever March to Finchley, under General HOGARTH.
–  from Received, a Blank Child

Dickens here, of course, referring to the Hogarth masterpiece still on display at the museum (and a favourite of mine). Elsewhere we see:

…the originator of the Institution for these poor foundlings having been a blessed creature of the name of Coram, we gave that name to Pet’s little maid.
– from Little Dorrit

We name our foundlings in alphabetical order. The last was an S, – Swubble… This was a T, – Twist. I named him.
– from Oliver Twist

The clock of the new St Pancras Church struck twelve, and the Foundling, with laudable politeness, did the same ten minutes afterwards…
– from Sketches by Boz

The little foundlings has such red noses this morning, that it made one colder to look at them.
– letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts

The exhibition comprises books, pamphlets, letters and artwork as they relate to the hospital, Brownlow and Dickens. We have an example of one of the Secretary’s daughter Emma Brownlow’s sentimental (though nicely executed) paintings. The museum owns many but this is one of four which are normally on permanent display. Note Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley painting referenced within it. Super.

The Foundling Restored to its Mother, 1858, by Emma Brownlow King (1832-1905) © Coram

The Foundling Restored to its Mother, 1858, by Emma Brownlow King (1832-1905) © Coram

jw gleadall

Plaster bust of Rev JW Gleadall (1815 – 91) whom Dickens praised for his ministry at the Foundling Hospital

This is a well-curated, thoughtful and moving exhibition. It has a relatively short run, so don’t miss it.

Received, a Blank Child: Dickens, Brownlow and the Foundling Hospital runs until 16 December 2012. Entry is free with museum admission which is £7.50.  Museum admission is free to Friends and Art Fund Members.

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