The history of a painting...

London is the home of hundreds of museum, most of which contain at least one little treasure. For instance, did you know that a painting by Adolph Tidemand, one of the most important artists from the Norwegian romantic nationalism period in the 19th century, hangs in a London museum that has several captivating stories to tell?

The painting, ‘Granny’s Darling’, is part of the permanent collection at London’s Foundling Museum. The painting was originally owned by Louisa Plumley who bequeathed it to the Foundling Hospital in 1868.  Plumley was the grand-daughter of Thomas Collingwood, secretary to the Foundling Hospital 1758-90 – a key administrative post in the institution. In addition to the Tidemand, she also donated a small portrait by an unknown artist of her grandmother Caroline Collingwood. It is unknown how she first acquired ‘Granny’s Darling’.

From hospital to museum

Nowadays, the Foundling Hospital no longer exists and the building was demolished in 1926 when the institution was moved out of town where it stayed until its closure in 1953. However, in a restored and refurbished building adjacent to the original site of the hospital near Russell Square, the Foundling Museum has been set up. It tells the story of this institution which was London’s first home for abandoned children and displays the many poignant objects relating to their lives at the hospital. Additionally, the museum focuses on three major figures in the hospital’s history: its campaigning founder the philanthropist Thomas Coram, the artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel.

Thomas Coram established a ‘Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Children’ in 1739, a time when around a thousand babies a year were abandoned in London. Family members who were unable to care for children would bring them to the institution where they were taken care of well into their teens. The foundlings, most of which were under the age of one when they arrived, were instantly given a new name as a sign of a fresh start – the only item that linked them to their past was a token left by their mothers which could identify them in the future if need be. Some of these beautiful tokens are on display at the museum today.

Boys and girls were kept in two separate buildings and there was no interaction between them. In a time when class generally determined one’s future, the kids were not given education as we know it, but were instead prepared for a designated working life – for the boys, that often involved a career in the army whilst the girls were expected to take on traditional work such as becoming maids. The children’s education also focussed a great deal on music and art, this was mainly due to the close relationships the hospital had with artist William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel.

London's first art gallery

Hogarth was one of the founding governors of the institution and acted on the idea of establishing the hospital as a gallery in which contemporary artists could exhibit their work. There were no art galleries around at that time so the chance to have one’s work displayed was slim. It was soon decided to set up a permanent gallery and its first endowment was one of eventually three works donated to the hospital by Hogarth. Other artists and collectors followed suite and eagerly gave paintings and ornaments as gestures of goodwill which would gain them wide attention as the gallery quickly became one of the capital’s most fashionable places to visit. Within years, works by prominent artists such as Francis Hayman, James Wills, Charles Brooking and Thomas Hudson were donated and the gallery became a centre of philanthropic activity where the artists, patrons and children benefited together from the contemporary culture of ‘enlightened self-interest’.

The composer Handel was also heavily involved with the hospital as a governor and gave yearly performances of his ‘Messiah’ there. Large portions of the proceeds from these concerts were given to the institution to help the upkeep of the children. In his will, Handel left a copy of the score of ‘Messiah’ to the hospital and, today, the Foundling Museum houses one of the most important collections of memorabilia relating to the composer.

Important painter from Norwegian romantic nationalism period

Over the years, the hospital acquired an extensive collection of artwork, most of which are by British artists. Adolph Tidemand, though, was born in the Norwegian town of Mandal in 1814, but moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, at the age of 18 to attend the art academy as there were no art schools in Norway. After five years of studies, he settled down in Düsseldorf, Germany, but continued to visit Norway regularly as he was preoccupied by Norwegian history.

Tidemand is viewed as one of the most important painters from the Norwegian romantic nationalism period. His paintings of the old Norwegian farm culture depicted the Norwegian farmers as they were. The National Gallery in Oslo alone owns over 100 of his works and he is best known for ‘Haugianerne’ (the Haugians) from 1852, and ‘Brudeferden i Hardanger’ (The bridal procession in Hardanger) painted in 1848 with Hans Gude. ‘Granny’s Darling’, which is part of the collection at the Foundling Museum, was painted in 1861.

The Foundling Museum
40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ
Tel. 020 7841 3600
Tues–Sat 10am–6pm, Sun 12–6pm
Admission £5, Concessions £4, Children up to 16 years Free

To see 'Granny's Darling', visit the Foundling Museum in London
Photo: Royal Norwegian Embassy

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Adolph Tidemand's painting 'Granny's Darling' hangs in the Foundling Museum, LondonPhoto: Royal Norwegian Embassy

The Foundling Museum is situated at Brunswick Square in Central LondonPhoto: The Foundling Museum

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