Economics Museums United Kingdom

Art collection at stake in row between museum and charity

Foundling Museum’s board of trustees sacked and paintings by Hogarth and Gainsborough under threat

The museum has bought a Hogarth but other works remain on loan

The future of the Foundling Museum’s collection is under threat after the recent takeover of the board of the London museum by the Coram children’s charity. At stake is an art collection with works by Hogarth and Gainsborough, amassed after Captain Thomas Coram set up London’s Foundling Hospital in 1739. The museum’s independent trustees have been sacked and its articles of association have been changed by the charity. Coram is now consolidating the museum’s financial accounts into its own.

The Charity Commission and the Attorney General are investigating the row between the boards of Coram and the museum. The Attorney General’s office wrote in September to the Charity Commission and the other parties to “emphasise the need to find a lasting resolution to this matter”. A Charity Commission spokeswoman says that it has clarified the legal position, in order to develop a framework for the future: “The first stage of this will be to ensure the appointment of independent trustees of the requisite calibre, independence and experience to replace those who have been removed. We will then seek to explore further with Coram and the new museum trustees the administrative framework which is in the best interests of the museum charity.”

A Coram spokeswoman says that “involved in considered discussions to reach a workable governance framework with the Foundling Museum”.

The dispute between the children’s charity and the museum erupted last October. The museum’s chairman, Andrew Fane, a former deputy chairman of English Heritage, was sacked, along with another trustee, Gregor Michie. Coram then appointed William Gore as the new chairman of the museum.

The situation worsened in May, when the remaining independent trustees were sacked. They were Jim Close, the former deputy director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum; the artist Jeremy Deller; Charles Henderson, the former head of the government’s Office of Arts and Libraries; Spencer Hyman, the founder of Artfinder; Patricia Lankester, who was a trustee of the National Gallery and the Tate until earlier this year; and Sheena Vick, a former Heritage Lottery Fund official.

A spokeswoman for Coram says that “some former trustees of the Foundling Museum felt things should be done differently and their opinions were, in view of the advice to the Coram board, considered incompatible”.

Most of the sacked trustees believe that the row is a power struggle, with Coram, which is led by Carol Homden, a former British Museum administrator, wanting to exert more control over the Foundling Museum so that it provides greater benefit for childcare causes. The museum’s director, Caro Howell, has not commented on the dispute.

What makes the row particularly damaging is that it could threaten the future of the collection. Coram owns more than 100 paintings, probably worth more than £30m. To safeguard the collection, a deal was agreed in 2002 under which Coram lent the pictures to the museum, allowing it to raise money to buy them over a 25-year period. This arrangement required the approval of the Attorney General, and hence the involvement of the office of the incumbent, Dominic Grieve.

Ownership of the first major work was transferred to the museum in 2002. Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley, 1749-50, was bought for £4m, with £3.9m coming from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and £100,000 from the Art Fund. Since then, only a few, lesser pictures have been bought by the museum from Coram. Two were acquired last year for £11,000.

One potential donor had been on the verge of offering £150,000, but recently pulled back because of the uncertainty caused by the row. To add to the difficulties, the children’s charity appears to be losing interest in selling major works to the museum, raising concerns that it might be waiting for prices to rise still higher. Stephen Deuchar, the director of the Art Fund, says that if the plan for the museum to buy the paintings fails, “there might be a danger of Coram being able to sell them on the open market after 2027”.

Coram insists that the arrangements for the sale of the collection to the museum remain unchanged. Michael Bear, its president, says that the children’s charity “remains committed to the museum’s independent status within its governing structure with a majority of independent trustees”.

Art that helped save abandoned babies

The Foundling Museum has a claim to be Britain’s oldest public art gallery, displaying the collection of the orphanage set up by Captain Thomas Coram in 1739. The Foundling Hospital quickly amassed an important group of donated paintings.

The most important is Hogarth’s portrait Captain Thomas Coram, 1740, along with works by Ramsay, Gainsborough and Copley. There is also memorabilia from the orphanage and items relating to the composer Handel, who gave performances of the “Messiah” there to raise funds.

In 1926, the hospital’s building in Bloomsbury was sold off, and the children moved to modern premises outside London. The Thomas Coram Foundation (now known as Coram) built a new headquarters in Brunswick Square, where works are displayed in historic interiors preserved from the original orphanage.

The museum was constituted as a charity in 1998 and its building was refurbished in 2004. Last year, it had 48,000 visitors.

The most important work in the collection is Hogarth’s portrait Captain Thomas Coram, 1740
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