Gill Hedleyback

Writer and Curator

RSVP Catalogue Essay

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

RSVP: Contemporary artists at the Foundling

Catalogue essay for the RSVP exhibition at the the Foundling Museum with Commissions East, 

photo inside the Foundling Museum
photo inside the RSVP exhibition

the Foundling Museum has a proud history of showing the work of contemporary artists.

It can claim to be the first ever public art gallery in Britain and was instrumental in the endeavours of those artists who later created the Royal Academy of Art which opened in Somerset House in 1768.

Since the Foundling’s re-opening as a museum in 1998 and its refurbishment in 2004 it has had a commitment to contemporary approaches to display and interpretation of its evocative collections and interiors. It often singles out in its own marketing two rather unlikely elements.

One is a hazelnut shell: a token, left by a mother when she gave up her baby. This is a very simple token of love, surely, rather than something that could securely identify parent and child if ever reunited. It is also redolent with symbolism and one wonders whether the mother kept the kernel as she abandoned the shell or whether it was lost.

The other, equally modest in some ways, is a view of the hospital at Charterhouse painted for the Court Room by Thomas Gainsborough. This is one of eight roundels, still in situ, in what is generally considered to be the best example in London of interior decoration from the 1740s. All the artists, the others more eminent than Gainsborough who was only 21 at the time, donated these works to the Foundling Museum.

One of Thomas Coram’s brilliant strategies in his creation of the Foundling Hospital was to persuade so many leading artists of the day to support his charity. The most powerful of these was William Hogarth and also one of the best known due in part to his genius for self publicity. Hogarth was also a generous and practical benefactor and was a governor of St Bartholomew’s Hospital to which he had donated two large paintings. His portrait of Thomas Coram, “one of the first I painted the size of life ... and generally thought the best portrait in the place notwithstanding the best artists in the Kingdom executed all their talents to vie with it” (Hogarth, quoted Gillian Pugh, London’s Forgotten Children, Tempus, 2007, p 73) was one of his many gifts to the Foundling.

Perhaps his greatest gift was the role he played in encouraging other artists to donate work at a period when there were very few opportunities for the public to see work by contemporary artists which was instead usually in private residences, only occasionally open to artists or connoisseurs on request.

“The donations in painting etc ... increased and, being exhibited to the public, drew a daily crowd of spectators in their splendid equipages; and a visit to the Foundling became the most fashionable morning lounge in the Reign of George II.” (Brownlow’s Memoranda, quoted ibid, p 74)

Most of the artists involved were elected governors and each 5 November, between 1747 and 1759, an artists’ dinner was held at the Foundling Hospital. 154 painters, sculptors, architects, engravers and other supporters (many of whom were doctors) attended the dinner in 1757. In 1760, the first annual exhibition was held and proceeds went to the charity. An exhibition was held in the same year at the new Society of Arts, selling 6,582 catalogues in two weeks. The fashion for attending contemporary art events had begun. This lasted until the early 20th century when the days of the need for barriers in front of such crowd-pleasers as William Powell Frith’s Derby Day at the Royal Academy of 1858 were long past.

Concerted efforts by Tate and other leading organisations, as well as galleries, public and commercial, to whet and feed the public appetite for contemporary art, has been hugely and deservedly successful since the 1990s. Using press and broadcast media interest in artists’ social lives and in the escalating prices of contemporary art has been cleverly judged and exploited.

However, the role of artists themselves has, as ever, been fundamental in creating changes in attitude. Artist-led exhibitions and organisations have proliferated in London’s East End and in regional cities throughout Britain. In response to the fast-growing number of artists in the country much public funding has been devoted to the creation of initiatives to increase understanding of and access to art. Work within non-contemporary art spaces which encourages new and surprising encounters has flourished.

Contemporary art is genuinely popular once more and it is appropriate timing for the new Foundling Museum to develop its own contemporary relationship with artists.

RSVP is an invitation to 15 artists to make new work in response to the Foundling Museum. The invitation was issued by Commissions East to artists within Eastern England.

It is almost irresistible to make an analogy with the artists in RSVP and the young Thomas Gainsborough, fresh from Sudbury in Suffolk, exhibiting his first major work at the Foundling Museum but it would be inappropriate to take this coincidence of geography too far.

The artists in RSVP have established careers within Eastern England and reputations beyond. They have been selected by curators in the region to become part of the Escalator project, managed by Commissions East. This is an initiative that identifies and works with artists, amongst other aims, to introduce their work to a wider audience through a national platform. Here, the analogy with the original Foundling artists’ project becomes more appropriate, fine-tuned for a 21st century audience.

Museums have long been inviting artists to make works in response to historic collections. This often results in commissions for temporary exhibitions such as the exemplary programmes at the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, National Maritime Museum, Freud Museum and British Museum, in London and the Manchester Museum, amongst many others. Rarely do they result in acquisitions for the collection although The Royal Armouries in Leeds invited the Contemporary Art Society to undertake commissions for this purpose seeing that an artist’s vision and interpretation of painful or difficult subjects such as warfare and the use of armaments can often be the most direct and personal way to introduce complex ideas. (Warning Shots!, Royal Armouries, Leeds, 2000)

On a practical level, museums without major contemporary art collections get great value from working with contemporary artists who, in turn, are able to work with significant institutions, remarkable collections and their scholars. New audiences result for both museum and artist.

To return to the hazelnut shell: one of the Foundling Museum’s posters encourages new visitors by explaining why a nutshell is as important to the museum as masterpiece by Gainsborough. Most visitors are particularly touched by the pathos of the tokens and, not surprisingly, many of the artists in RSVP responded to these symbols, too. The artists in RSVP have spent time at the museum as visitors, invited guests, either finding stimulus in the unfamiliar or finding resonance with their own practice. The responses have been very varied.

Ideas of separation, childhood, identity, the palimpsests of the eighteenth century and today with all the layers of events in between, the change in use from Hospital to Museum, the role of the Foundling Museum within Bloomsbury, careful preservation of objects, the demands of contemporary audiences and the importance of musical performance have all informed the new works created for RSVP.

RSVP takes its title from the many invitations that have been proffered. Commissions East extended an invitation to the artists, and to the Foundling Museum; the Foundling Museum then became the host. The artists were invited not only to participate but to respond, s’il vous plait, to the building, its objects, interiors, histories, ghosts and current audiences. The project curator, while also a guest, became an occasional mistress of ceremonies.

Art, both in 1757 and 2007, can often be seen as a matter of social flim flam and private views but RSVP has posed many important challenges to all involved.

The usual pattern for such an exhibition would have been a proposal from the museum, either through a curator on the staff or an invited curator, to a group of artists asking them to participate in a project. Each artist would have been given an outline of the curator’s thinking about how responses might be made to the fabric or concepts of the museum.

In the case of RSVP, however, Commissions East began as the curators, selecting a venue that was resonant and appropriate for an exhibition in parallel with the selection of artists who, as individuals rather than as a group, were deemed ready for the challenge and opportunity.

When the Director and her staff at the Foundling Museum were committed to the project and its new ways of approaching their collections and displays, an independent curator was brought on board.

My role as curator has not been to select artists to respond to any vision of my own but rather, and much more excitingly from my point of view, to act as an interlocutor between the artists and the museum. Previously a museum curator, I still understand the many limitations and sensitivities of conservation and visitors’ needs. As an exhibitions curator, I have often worked as a cuckoo in other museum nests and am aware that artists and museum staff often have very different approaches to what is possible and practical. I know the Foundling Museum collections fairly well and took my finals in 18th century art history in the building next door to the Foundling (which, for me at least, is a comforting thought). With a few exceptions, the artists in RSVP were unknown to me.