William Hogarth and the Foundling Hospital

Caro Howell

Hanging in one of London’s oldest art galleries is a painting that holds the story of the beginnings of modern British art scene.

The Foundling Hospital was not only the UK’s first children’s charity but also lays claim to be the UK’s first public art gallery. Caro Howell, Director of the Foundling Museum, tells how artist William Hogarth’s gift of a painting — and his subsequent collaboration with Thomas Coram, the founder of the Hospital — helped save children’s lives and laid the seedbed for the contemporary art scene as we know it.

2 comments on “William Hogarth and the Foundling Hospital

  1. Was the Foundling hospital the first childrens’ charity? What about Christ’s Hospital founded in 1553?

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    I consulted the Foundling Museum about your question and received the following response:

    ‘In general, we would say that Christ’s Hospital is a school (and refers to itself as such on its history page), whereas the Foundling Hospital was a children’s charity in the holistic sense as we understand it today; taking in babies, caring for and raising them (including schooling) and, importantly, supporting them through their life as and when it became necessary.’

    You can find out more about the foundation of the Foundling Hospital here: https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/about/our-history/
    And Coram as a charity here: https://www.coram.org.uk/our-story

    I hope this helps! Thanks for engaging with the film.


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This portrait by William Hogarth is a starter pistol for really the beginning of the contemporary British art world as we understand it today.

Many of the things we associate with contemporary British art, its popularity, its fashion ability, its philanthropy, started with this painting of Thomas Coram.

Thomas Coram was the great philanthropist whose idea the Foundling Hospital had been and it was his 17 year campaign to get this hospital established that was supported by William Hogarth.

This painting was the first work of art to be donated to the hospital, which was itself, the UK’s first children’s charity.

William Hogarth had a very unusual upbringing, his father made the slightly unwise decision to open a Latin only speaking coffee shop which not unsurprisingly went belly up and in the 18th century if you were bankrupt it wasn’t just you that went into prison, your whole family went into prison, so for 5 years of Hogarth’s childhood he was in the Fleet debtors prison so he knew first hand that bad things happened to good people and there was really no system to support them and help them.

Hogarth was somebody who was drawn to scenes of everyday London life, sequential stories that were told out over a series of prints about the escapades and the downfalls of foolish young people in a sinful city.

And he also filled the images with cameo parts of popular people of the day, kind of like a Hello or a Grazia, you could spot famous people as you looked at these images and at the same time spot people that were just like you in them.

But Hogarth knew that to be successful just as a printmaker wasn’t enough in terms of his status, so a work like this portrait which he considered to be his finest portrait, this was a real statement about the ambition he had for his painting.

At first sight this portrait looks fairly unremarkable, you see you see Hogarth using a number of the techniques that were attributed to Baroque portraiture. You would expect the sitter to be standing or seated so you the viewer would be looking up at them, they would be surrounded by objects that spoke to their own personal wealth, because these would obviously be aristocratic and wealthy people, and then usually they might be seated in grand rolling landscapes because they themselves owned large amounts of land, or they would be on a Roman ruin.

You can see Hogarth in this portrait doing some of that. Is there a column? Tick, yes there is, a large piece of Roman antiquity. Is there a distant view? Yes, you can see rolling seas but as you look more closely, there are other things in the picture which are quite unusual. Most noticably, Thomas Coram is wearing his own hair, he’s not wearing a wig. And this was very unusual because for elegant aristocratic people, they wore wigs. His face is very ruddy, there’s been no attempt to cover up the fact that his nose and cheeks have lots of thread veins in them, His coat is quite crumpled and rumpled, it’s beautiful red, but it’s slightly shabby, the impression that you get from this man is the sense of somebody who is anxious to get up and get on and do something.  And this is Hogarth indicating to the viewer, what this man was like.

Perhaps most prominently, the sunlight is shining on the royal charter, this scrolled document with the huge seal. And this really was the lifetime achievement of Thomas Coram. This was the permission from the King to enable him to establish a Foundling Hospital, a charity that would look after babies who would otherwise have been abandoned on the street.

The Foundling Hospital wasn’t just the UK’s first children’s charity, it was also the UK’s first public art gallery. In the 18th century, there weren’t really many places to see contemporary British art. So Hogarth was an incredible entrepreneur, he realised that Coram was building this brand new, huge building to house these foundling children and he realises that this new building has lots of empty wall space so in donating this painting he then persuades all of the leading artists of the day, artists like Ramsey, Reynolds, Gainsborough to donate as well and within a matter of years it becomes one of the most fashionable places for educated people to come to visit. And of course once they were here, as well as seeing the art, they could see the children having their meals, doing their lessons, singing in the choir, and their heart strings would be plucked and they would give money. But these were also precisely the kind of people who might commission these artists to paint work for them, so it was a win-win situation.

Hogarth instituted an annual dinner every year for the artists governors and we have records of the amount that was eaten and drunk, these were riotous affairs. But also it was an opportunity for artists to all get together and probably have a bit of a moan about the state of British art. The Foundling Hospital became the seedbed for the founding of the Royal Academy of arts which was established in 1768. That all started here and it all was triggered by this work.

This portrait of Thomas Coram not only enabled Hogarth to position himself as a painter of real skill and note, Hogarth literally helped save children’s lives.

There are people that come into this museum who introduce themselves by saying, I’ve been doing some research into my ancestry and I’ve discovered an ancestor was a Foundling. And you are looking at somebody who is alive and walking the planet in the 21st century thanks to the work of people like Hogarth and Coram who turned an idea for a children’s charity into a reality and in doing so shaped contemporary British art scene in ways they would never have foreseen and really the contemporary art world as we understand and as we enjoy it really can trace its origins back to this painter, and in many ways, this painting.

With thanks to 

The Foundling Museum

Michael Craig-Martin



Alamy Stock Photo

Antiqua Print Gallery

Art UK

British Museum

Clynt Garnham Publishing

De Luan

Guildhall Library & Art Gallery

Heritage Image Partnership Ltd

The Lichtenstein Princely Collections

Man Family Archive

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Michael Craig-Martin

National Galleries of Scotland

National Portrait Gallery

National Trust for Scotland, Haddo House

New York Foundling

Project Gutenberg

Richard Levine

SCAD Museum of Art

Sir John Soane’s Museum


The Wellcome Collection



Audio Network


Full list of images shown:

Captain Thomas Coram                     

 William Hogarth, 1740

© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum


Installation view of Tricycle

Michael Craig-Martin, 2016

Photo by Dan Weill

© Michael Craig-Martin


Foundling Hospital, London

H. Roberts (after J. Robinson after T. Jacobson), 1749

© Wellcome Collection

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


The Painter and his pug

William Hogarth 1745

Photo: © Tate


Times of Day: Plate 1, Morning

William Hogarth, 1738

Guildhall Library & Art Gallery /Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo


‘Fleet Prison’
by Thomas Rowlandson, and by Auguste Charles Pugin, aquatinted by Joseph Constantine Stadler, published by Rudolph Ackermann
hand-coloured etching and aquatint, published 1 September 1808
© National Portrait Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


A Rake’s Progress: Plate 3, The Tavern Scene

William Hogarth, 1735

SCAD Museum of Art


A Harlot’s Progress: Plate 4, Moll beats hemp in Bridewell Prison

William Hogarth, 1732

© Trustees of the British Museum.

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



A Rake’s Progress: Plate 8, In The Madhouse

William Hogarth, 1735

© Tate


A Rake’s Progress, Plate 2, Surrounded by Artists and Professors

William Hogarth, 1735

SCAD Museum of Art


A Harlot’s Progress Plate 2 Moll is now a kept woman, the mistress of a wealthy merchant

William Hogarth, 1732

© Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Dr Richard Mead

Allan Ramsay, 1747

© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum


George Gordon, Lord Haddo

Pompeo Batoni, 1775

© Art UK


Portrait of a Young Man

Pompeo Batoni, 1760–1765

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)


Portrait of the future Prince Alois I of Liechtenstein

Fredrich Oelenhainz, 1776

© The Lichtenstein Princely Collections


Richard Cumberland

George Romney, 1776

© National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 19

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)



The Dining Room, Foundling Hospital, Berkhamsted

Unknown photographer, 1940

© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum


The Picture Gallery

Hanslip Fletcher, 1926

© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum


The Foundling Hosptial

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, 1809

From The Microcosm of London or London in Minature, Volume II by William Henry Pyne and Willian Combe: Methuen and Company, pp. Plate 37


Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: interior of chapel

John Sanders, 1774

© Wellcome Collection

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Self Portrait

Allan Ramsay, 1713

National Galleries of Scotland



Sir Joshua Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds


© National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 41

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)



Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough, c.1758-1759

NPG 4446

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)



A Rake’s Progress: Plate 2, Surrounded by Artists and Professors

William Hogarth, 1732-35

Sir John Soane’s Museum


Sunday at the Foundling Hospital

Joseph Swain, 1872

© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum


Christmas Carols at the Foundling Hospital

William Hatherell, 1891

© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum


The Rake’s Progress: Plate 6, Gaming house scene

William Hogarth, 1735

From The Works of William Hogarth: In a Series of Engravings With Descriptions, and a Comment on Their Moral Tendency by Rev. John Trusler, pub. 1833. Sourced from Project Gutenberg.


The Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House 1874

Antiqua Print Gallery / Alamy Stock Photo


Galleries in the Royal Academy of Arts

De Luan / Alamy Stock Photo


The Boys Dining Room, Foundling Hospital, Berkhamsted

Unknown photographer, n.d.

© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

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