The Foundling Museum, London
May 27 – September 4, 2016
William Hogarth was a founding governor of the Foundling Hospital, chartered in 1739, and his example ensured the commitment of leading artists to “Ornamenting this Hospital.” The Hogarth Fellowship commemorates their involvement. Cornelia Parker (b. 1956), the most recent recipient, has used her appointment to mount an exhibition of works contributed by over sixty fellow artists, writers, and musicians. The premise of the project is that each thing shown should have been found by its contributor. They thereby echo the human purpose of the hospital, which is to care for abandoned children. Parker is among the most admired, respected, and well-liked artists of her generation, and she has drawn on her wide circle of acquaintance to create this thoughtful exhibition. Many of the objects are distributed among the existing displays of the museum, playing off things in the permanent collection. Others are gathered in the temporary exhibition gallery.
The Foundling Museum is an extremely difficult venue in which to make display interventions owing to the superb quality of the artworks donated to the hospital by leading eighteenth-century artists. They include paintings by Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Benjamin West, and Richard Wilson. Louis-François Roubiliac’s portrait bust of George Frideric Handel (a supporter of the hospital), and ornately carved wood paneling by William Hallett add to its richness. An even greater challenge is the presence of small things that in other circumstances might scarcely be remarkable but that are here extraordinarily invested with affect. These are the tokens left by parents (mostly mothers) consigning their children to the hospital, usually out of desperation. These tokens were to ensure that any future claim for their return might be verified. Many are kept in the Billet Books, the records of admission. One is displayed open to show the page recording the admission of a male child. Affixed to it is a pink ribbon cockade, of the kind commonly attached to boys’ caps to identify their gender. This is the token of child number 13,733, admitted on August 21, 1759. Given the circumstances, these simple things—coins, scraps of embroidery, cheap jewelry—carry a considerable emotional charge.
To place other things among these charged objects can be no casual undertaking, and not every contributor rises to the occasion. Some clearly gave more thought to Parker’s project than others. Among the successful additions in the gallery containing the tokens is a vitrine containing a photograph from about 1911 of Cornelius Alfred Phipps, then aged about seven, wearing a sailor suit and holding a bucket and wooden spade. Phipps was the grandfather of artist, Sue Pritchard, who found it among her mother’s possessions after her death in 2012. Phipps had himself been brought up in an orphanage in view of his mother’s inability to care for him following his father’s death. He was reunited with his mother when he left school. Shown with the photograph are not only fragmented pieces of his sailor suit, but also the very spade held by the boy. These are relics of a childhood that parallels those of the children in the hospital, but one distinguished by reunion of mother and son, and the private preservation until her death of things that characterized her dearly loved child.
The museum contains many tokens of the hospital’s and its governors’ wealth and social standing. Among them is a case containing the hospital’s silver. The fine chargers, cups, and ewers were intended for both use and display on great occasions. Into this array, Humphrey Ocean has introduced a circular, plain, but variously dented, apparently silver object that at first is scarcely distinguishable from the platters that flank it. But, as Ocean explains in the accompanying label, it is a car hubcap that he found many years ago in Peckham Road, London, and that he has kept in his studio ever since. Its character and status is a gentle reproach to the grandeur of the social claims associated with the vessels it accompanies, as well as a reminder that beauty can reside in abjection.
The aesthetics of degradation informs several other works in the exhibition: a glass bottle encrusted with the hardened casts of marine tube worms found off the west coast of Ireland and contributed by Dorothy Cross; a military helmet, probably a World War I Austrian M17, eroded to a lattice of fragile metallic corrosion, found in the Veneto and contributed by Ackroyd & Harvey (Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey); soiled and crumpled pawnbroker’s coupons covering the year 1951, pierced and threaded on a string over eight feet long, each, as contributor Ron Arad states, “a document of someone’s hard time.”
The aesthetics of degradation can shade into the aura of the relic. In one of her own contributions, There must be some kind of way out of here, Parker has installed on the walls and floor at the base of the museum stairwell several worn pieces of the dismembered staircase from 23 Brook Street, London. There is an echo here of the woodwork of her sculpture on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Transitional Object (Psychobarn) (April 19 – October 31, 2016), a scenery flat of a Victorian gothic house inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the Bates family’s mansion from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). But the sympathetic magic of these staircase remnants depends on their verifiable associations. She recovered them from a dumpster outside the house in Mayfair in which Jimi Hendrix lived in a top floor apartment between 1968 and 1969. It was recently converted from office space for the Handel House Trust (George Frideric Handel had lived next door) into a museum. These were the stairs up and down which Hendrix, to use Parker’s term, “scampered.” Hendrix had himself been a child in precarious circumstances, his parents having given up three of his four siblings to foster care and adoption. Like Parker’s rooftop sculpture in New York, There must be some kind of way out of here is a locus of associations that grow ever more disturbing the more one recollects them.
The pieces that work best in this exhibition are those that take on the challenge of sentiment directly: sentiment in the eighteenth-century sense of openness to tender emotion. This is not sentimentality in the contemporary, pejorative sense of self-indulgent sadness, sympathy, or nostalgia, but an acknowledgment of the power of affect in addressing the human condition, in this place exemplified by the fate of helpless children and the anguished mothers who gave them up. By these criteria, one piece steals the show.
A well-lit second floor anteroom has been emptied of all furniture. There the visitor sees a life-size likeness of a newborn infant, lying face down as though at the breast but finding small comfort on the plain wooden floor. This is Antony Gormley’s Iron Baby (1999). The sculpture suggests vulnerability on a macro- as well as a microcosmic scale, for it is cast in a material that, as Gormley notes, forms the core of our fragile planet. Gormley made it from a “body case” derived from his newborn daughter, Paloma, now a London architect. Several sculptors have made personally invested likenesses of their own infant children—Hiram Powers’s Loulie’s Hand, 1839 (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC), Paul Manship’s Sarah Jane Manship, 1930 (Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA)—but none suggests tenderness with such eloquence for both the human at her most helpless, and for the entire Earth. Antony Gormley’s Iron Baby is the fitting emotional focal point and climax of Cornelia Parker’s varied but rewarding exhibition project.*
Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.
* The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue: Found: An Exhibition Curated by Cornelia Parker (London: The Foundling Museum, 2016).