Movers and shakers: Rhian Harris

When Rhian Harris first started working for the Thomas Coram Foundation ten years ago, her job description couldn‘t have been more open-ended. As a charity set up to help disadvantaged children, the foundation had lots of important work to do in the modern world. But as heir to one of the most extraordinary acts of eighteenth-century benevolence, it was also the inheritor of a unique collection of art, as well as a piece of London history. It needed someone to work out how that legacy could best be preserved.

  • Movers and shakers: Rhian Harris

    New entry at 55: Foundling fundraiser, Rhian Harris

  • Back in 1739, campaigning philanthropist Thomas Coram pulled every string he could think of to raise funds for a ‘Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Children’. His master stroke was to enlist William Hogarth as one of the hospital’s first governors; he in turn encouraged the leading artists of the day to donate works to adorn the building and get wealthy benefactors through the door. As well as being the first children’s charity in England (pre-dating Barnardo’s by a century), the Foundling Hospital became London’s first public exhibition space, and led directly to the formation of the Royal Academy of Arts. Today, the collection boasts works by Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough and other Enlightenment luminaries, as well as internationally important manuscripts, books and ephemera relating to Handel, who was another of the hospital’s key supporters.

    Harris, an art historian by training, realised the huge responsibility she had taken on. ‘The trustees were keen that the collection should become independent and self-financing,’ she says. ‘At the time it was completely run by the children’s charity and obviously wasn’t cared for properly because it wasn’t their priority, so the collection was deteriorating and the building was in an appalling condition.’ After a protracted process of legal disentanglement, the foundation renamed itself Coram Family and moved next door, where it continues its work with vulnerable children. The Foundling Museum became an independent entity and took possession of the original imposing site overlooking the Coram’s Fields playground. But that was only part of the problem.

    Like Coram before her, Harris was now faced with a huge fundraising task; and like Coram, she understood that art was its own best advocate. ‘What we did was hold a series of appeal lunches in this dilapidated building, where the paintings were all looking terrible. We’d invite anybody and everybody we could get who might know someone who had some money, or have some money themselves. We did it in small numbers – we got them into the building, they saw the condition it was in, they listened to the incredible story of the Foundling Hospital, Thomas Coram’s struggle and the fact that we have these great paintings. No one had ever heard of us, that was part of the battle; we were trying to raise awareness and ask for a lot of money at the same time. When I first started I used to take it all very personally and get terribly upset when I was turned down, but you learn not to be knocked back by anything. It took a while, but eventually it started to do the trick.’

    Perhaps more charities should harness the power of art? ‘Well, I think the whole Coram story is a really interesting and wonderful example of how that can happen, but for some charities maybe it wouldn’t be appropriate, maybe it wouldn’t work,’ says Harris. ‘It works for us because we have a historical tradition, so we are actively trying to re-enact that – we’re trying to get contemporary artists involved and it will be interesting to see what happens.’

    The Foundling Museum finally opened its doors two years ago, with restored art hanging in refurbished eighteenth-century interiors, alongside exhibits explaining the charity’s history. Harris and her team have reinstated the hospital’s tradition of free concerts, and have established a varied programme of events, children’s activities and temporary exhibitions – they’re currently showing the lost Renaissance masterpiece ‘Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata’ by Guercino.

    For Harris, the museum’s increasing popularity is the deeply satisfying realisation of a personal vision. ‘You always have a vision in your head of what the place is going to be like, and you always think it might not live up to that dream. But it did live up to exactly what I wanted it to be. I always felt passionate about the place – it’s an important part of our social history and a part of who we are as human beings. It just couldn’t be left to die.’

    The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1 (020 7841 3600).

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