I’m looking at a map of City ‘philanthropy hotspots’. There are 35 in total, suggesting a long and proud history of charity in the Square Mile. But in the age of austerity, as the gut of global finance spills over its belt and into the housing market, Londoners could perhaps be forgiven for feeling just a tad down on the Masters of the Universe. So is now the best time for ‘Philanthropy: The City Story’, a new Museum of London exhibition at the Charterhouse exploring the benevolence of London’s mega-elite?
‘It’s never more important to talk about philanthropy than in times of austerity,’ says Cheryl Chapman of the City of London Corporation’s Charity, The City Bridge Trust, which funded the exhibition.
The month-long show tells the story of charity in the capital, starting with the emergence in the sixteenth century of a wealthy merchant class and ending at present day – with the apparent twenty-first-century resurgence of… a wealthy merchant class. It’s a story that the Museum of London’s director of collections, Dr Cathy Ross, who curated the exhibition, calls a ‘hidden history’.
‘Before the emergence of the welfare state in the twentieth century, social spending was really down to philanthropists,’ she says. Schools, hospitals, bridges, statues: our city was built on goodwill.
But perhaps in spite of itself, ‘Philanthropy’ also tells another story, one warning against the abandonment of state welfare. Exhibit A: the Jewish charity drum (circa 1802-06), necessitated by poverty so widespread the recipients of charity were selected by lottery. Exhibit B: George Elgar Hicks’s painting ‘An Infant Orphan Election at the London Tavern: Polling’ (1865), which captures a time when orphans were obliged to compete in elections for asylum beds.
Long-defunct medals awarded for charitable acts lend real presence to ‘Philanthropy’, but the exhibition’s top trump is its location. These days, the Charterhouse provides housing to some 41 ‘brothers’ of limited means thanks to a charitable endowment – making it the perfect venue for an exhibition about charity. But the medieval priory, built in 1371, has a past to make ‘Game of Thrones’ look like musical chairs – complete with murder, royal intrigue and the schoolboy invention of football’s offside rule. Historical tours led by residents (Thursday to Sunday at 3pm during the exhibition) should not be missed.
Though if you do miss the exhibition, take comfort. Rather than making us wait another 660 years, the Charterhouse plans to re-open to the public permanently in 2016.