Monday, 7 March 2011

Go Gentle babe!

Perhaps the most moving exhibition I've been to for a long time - in fact I'm welling up a bit now, Threads of Feeling at the Foundling Museum. There was a lovely article in Selvedge and this month it is featured in World Of Interiors.

Although it's been on since October, Jonathan and I finally got there on Saturday, the day before it closed. The exhibition shows the identifying tokens put into ledgers of all the children left at the Foundling Hospital during the mid-eighteenth century. It is moving and fascinating on many levels.


Each entry represents the sad story of a small baby abandoned by its mother, or sometimes already orphaned. The babies were so tiny, a fortnight old, a week old, a day old, and often didn't survive for long. Many were given a better chance in life and a few were reclaimed, identified by the tokens.

On each page was a list of standard clothing items, presumably to speed up the checking-in process. Many of the items are reasonably incomprehensible now. Even sleeves are a separate item. Happily the word 'clout' is on the list. In this context it means a nappy, but is, I think, in general a term for a piece of fabric or clothing. I just googled an expression I have resonating in my mind 'Ne're cast a clout 'til April's out'. The meaning has always been clear to me, don't wear too few clothes until it's really summer, but the traditional saying seems to be May not April. And indeed the May referred to may be Hawthorne blossom rather than the month.


One thing we both noticed about the printed list was the heavy letterpress impression it made, which you could see on the back of the previous page. It's tangible signs of human endeavour like that that add to the poignancy of the whole experience.


A small piece of fabric has been reconstructed by the London Printworks Trust. The fabric is named Florella after the baby whose token it was.

One of the most moving parts of the entries was where the mothers had left messages. One had left a poem that started with, "Go Gentle Babe!" and included the optimistic words, "And all thy life be Happiness and Love."

The exhibition also has a Facebook page and has inspired many blogs. It has also inspired more creative work, like this delightful bird. Although the exhibition is over, there is a lovely online exhibition to view.