Pete, my historian husband, always says that it’s the weaker students who tell him that one of the main reasons for studying history is so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Well, one of the mistakes that I keep on making is not going to exhibitions that run for more than a couple of weeks because I forget or never ‘get round to it’. So, on Saturday, we did get round to going to the ‘Threads of Feeling’ exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London. The hospital was established in the 18th century to take in unwanted children by Captain Coram, William Hogarth, the artist, and George Frideric Handel, the composer. The museum is on the site of the original building in Bloomsbury, and its website is at www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk.
We went to see the very small and beautifully done exhibition of pages from the ledgers of pieces of cloth preserved to identify the children should their mothers (almost always) come to reclaim them. As the exhibition website explains
In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left between 1741 and 1760, a small object or token, usually a piece of fabric, was kept as an identifying record. The fabric was either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the hospital’s nurses. Attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, these pieces of fabric form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th Century.
We both felt that the emotion could have been laid on with a trowel, but it was a thoughtful and tempered exhibition. I had to laugh at myself, though, when I caught myself being furious with a very noisy group of schoolchildren crashing through the place so that they could fill in their worksheets while I was brimming over with compassion for these desolate babies and mothers. A very English attitude to children…
For those of us interested in textiles, however, the pieces of fabric are extraordinary. Because they have been kept out of the light they are as fresh as the day they were deposited at the hospital. The pins holding the samples together haven’t even rusted. And they form a major archive of 18th-century women’s and other domestic textiles. What is missing is heavy work clothes worn by men, because the fathers so rarely appeared with the children.
I want to work with the themes and ideas of this exhibition when I get to grips with my Laura Ashley project, so I won’t go on much more here. It is well worth making the effort to see the exhibition which continues to 6 March 2011. An added incentive might be the rather splendid cafe on the ground floor, with a fine line in cake. Or possibly the Handel room on the top floor with its leather wing chairs with speakers set in the wings at ear level playing selections from the composer’s catalogue.
As part of the exhibition, Annabelle Lewis of VV Rouleaux has made an installation called The Falling Thread.
Afterwards, we went round the corner to the British Museum and the Margo Selby shop, of which more in subsequent posts.