Charity finally wins right to display valuable art collection

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The Independent Online

A valuable collection of art founded in the 18th century is to go on permanent public display after the Attorney General backed down in a dispute with the charity that owns it.

The charity, Coram Family, will establish a museum to display the works in Bloomsbury, the area of London where it has been working with disadvantaged children and young people for more than 250 years. The charity has been promised £3m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund to restore the paintings and run the centre in recognition of the importance of the collection.

Captain Thomas Coram, a shipwright and sea captain who was shocked by the fate of abandoned illegitimate babies, founded the charity, which began as a Foundling Hospital in central London. The hospital was built in Coram's Fields, which is now a children's park and playground where adults are allowed in only if accompanied by a child.

The collection of 150 paintings, which is now worth at least £17m, was started by the artist William Hogarth, a keen supporter of Coram's work, who encouraged others, such as Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, to give art. Wealthy patrons came to see what was in effect London's first public gallery and donated funds to support the charity's work with children.

The art remains in a building at the charity's headquarters but, under the terms of its charitable status, Coram Family is not allowed to operate a museum or spend disproportionately on maintaining the art.

After years of debate, the organisation came up with a scheme to set up a separate charity, the Foundling Museum, which would exhibit the collection to the paying public and raise the money to buy the art work from the Coram Family over 25 years. The scheme had the virtue of keeping the historic collection intact while raising funds and helping the charity's profile.

But the plan hit a snag when Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Attorney General, said the idea went beyond the charity's aims of caring for children. Further talks took place and Dr Gillian Pugh, the charity's chief executive, announced yesterday that the objections had been dropped. The collection of paintings and the building in which they are housed in Bloomsbury will be restored over the next two years before being opened to the public.

Dr Pugh said the charity had done its sums very carefully, which was why the Attorney General had agreed to the scheme. "We are absolutely delighted. We didn't see this as a battle. Everybody wanted this, it was just a case of trying to get around the very proper legal difficulty of making sure that our resources were going on children and not being spent on art and heritage.

"This scheme will enable us to provide more services for very needy children, whose lives have been disrupted by family breakdown and abuse."

Anthea Case, the director of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, said it, too, was delighted. "The NHMF, the nation's only fund of last resort for saving our heritage, has long shown support for keeping this remarkable collection intact."

A scheme to raise funds for restoration was already under way before the legal dispute arose and will be now resumed. It had raised £2.2m of the £3m needed to match the heritage fund's endowment.

As well as the Hogarth, Gainsborough and Reynolds paintings, the collection includes works by other well-respected 18th-century artists such as Samuel Wale, Andrea Casali, John Singleton Copley and James Wills. There are sculptures by Rysbrack and a bust of the composer Handel by Louis-François Roubiliac. Handel himself had close connections with the Foundling Hospital and performed The Messiah for it every year for a decade before his death.

When the Foundling Hospital was demolished in the 1920s, the collection was moved to its present home at 40 Brunswick Square. It remained open to visitors for many years but was closed because the charity was not allowed to employ guards to reduce the risk of theft.