The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead, The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, London WC1 , until 4th January 2015
The Foundling Museum tells the remarkable story of the UK’s first children’s charity and what was also the first public art gallery. Set up in 1739 by the philanthropic Captain Thomas Coram as ‘a hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’ he was supported by the painter William Hogarth, who encouraged other artists of the day to donate pictures as well, and by George Fredric Handel who gave annual benefit concerts of the Messiah. This arts “combination” can be said to have provided the template by which the Arts can support worthy causes to this day.
However the focus of this special exhibition is the eminent physician Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754). He was a supporter and involved with the hospital from its earliest days. He served as a Governor and encouraged his noble clients, which included Queen Anne, George II, Sir Isaac Newton and the French painter Antoine Watteau, to support the charity. He gave his advice and services for free to the Hospital and was a strong supporter of the idea of inoculation against the virulent disease smallpox (vaccination pioneered by Edward Jenner was not developed until the late 18th century) and interestingly by 1756 only one of the two hundred and forty-seven foundlings who had been inoculated died of the disease.
Mead was also an eager patron of the arts, both contemporary artists such as Allan Ramsay and Canaletto and earlier masters such as Dürer, Holbein, Rembrandt and Poussin. He housed these paintings together with his collections of antiquities, coins, sculptures and extensive library in his home in Great Ormond Street which backed onto the grounds of the Foundling Hospital.
Sadly, due to his generosity, he left large debts when he died but he had prepared for this by ordering through his will the dispersal through sale of thousands of pieces from his collection. His collection was comparable with that of his contemporary Sir Hans Sloane, who was the founder of the British Museum. The auction lasted fifty-six days.
The work of the Foundling Hospital continues as Coram and still works to provide better opportunities for children today. A huge debt is owed to Thomas Coram and those who supported him, especially to Dr Richard Mead of whom the noted writer Samuel Johnson commented, “Dr Mead lived more in the broad sunshine of life than almost any man”.