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fabricHere at the Riskies we return quite frequently to the topic of London’s Foundling Hospital, founded by sea captain Thomas Coram, composer George Handel, and artist William Hogarth. Today I’m sharing some recent finds I made–one is this quite splendid documentary Messiah at the Foundling Hospital (sit tight, it’s an hour long).

I discovered more about Hogarth’s contributions. He designed the logo in the form of a coat of arms, which is, as the documentary’s narrator points out, quite brilliant. Because it’s a coat of arms, it would have had instant appeal for the well-heeled aristocrats who were being targeted as donors. But the legend is in English–just one word: Help.

Arms of the Foundling Hospital

Arms of the Foundling Hospital

To be honest I’m not sure who the figure on the left is–a sort of female corkscrew? Anyone know? On the right is Britannia. The rest is self-explanatory, the baby and the innocent lamb. Anyway, the point is that this worked. It became hip and fashionable to be a philanthropist.

foundlingsHogarth also designed the children’s uniforms, some of which are on display at The Foundling Museum in London. (Ignore the well-scrubbed angelic appearance of the children in this painting. The clothes are correct.)

One perspective I’ve never encountered before is what other, more fortunate, children thought of foundlings and orphans. Some families might have a young maid who was trained at the Foundling Hospital. foundling samplerOne can only hope that no impressionable child saw the dying and abandoned babies on the streets of London whose fate so moved Coram. Here’s a sampler made in 1825 by ten-year-old Mary Ann Quatermain.

But back to those uniforms. What happened to the clothes the children wore when they were admitted? Historian Alice Dolan tells us that:

In 1757, when the Hospital was overwhelmed by the clothing due to the large influx of children, the Hospital committee decided to sell the

‘old Raggs and useless things brought in with the Children of this Hospital’

because they were causing problems with ‘Vermin’.

After enquiries, the Hospital Committee decided to sell to the rag merchant Mrs Jones in Broad St Giles who would pay 28 shillings a stone for linen rags and 4 shillings 6 pence a stone for woollen rags. This was more than twice what her competitor Joseph Thompson offered for the linen and woollen rags.

Considering the thousands of children were admitted to the Hospital, this was a valuable form of income. It’s a reminder too, that nothing was discarded–vermin or not–if it could be sold or upcycled.

The exhibit Threads of Feeling, some of the fabric samples and tokens mothers handed in with their babies for later identification, showed a few years ago at the DeWitt Museum in Williamsburg. Both I and Diane, who blogged about it, visited. While I was poking around online I checked out future exhibits at the Foundling Museum, although I doubt I’ll get to any. Are you planning, or have you been to, anything inspiring at a museum recently?

I’m not religious and I don’t do much over Christmas, but one thing I’ve done for years is to attend a performance of the Messiah. I’ve attended performances in concert halls with huge choruses and orchestras; and a memorable performance in York Minster during the power cuts of the early 1970s when we all kept on our gloves and hats and one very short intermission at which we all dashed out to the nearest pub for warming drinks. Last national_cathedral_002-2Saturday I heard Messiah at Washington National Cathedral, performed with a baroque orchestra and an “authentic” chorus of a children’s choir plus male voices. It was really spectacular and in a gorgeous setting.

Handel, however, composed it for Easter, and it’s still performed then. It has never waned in popularity–Mozart, Carl Maria von Weber, and Mendelssohn introduced it in Europe and the rise of choral societies in the later nineteenth century ensured its popularity. The world record for an unbroken sequence of performances is held by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, which has performed it annually since 1853!

Handel composed the work in 1741 in a breathtaking 24 days, despite a difficult relationship with librettist Charles Jennens:

Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho’ [Handel] said he would be a year about it, and make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d.

Six months later Jennens was still unimpressed:

‘Tis still in his power by retouching the weak parts to make it fit for publick performance; and I have said a great deal to him on the Subject; but he is so lazy and so obstinate, that I much doubt the Effect.

250px-Neal_Music_HallMessiah premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742 as part of a series of charity concerts in Neal’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street near Dublin’s Temple Bar. Right up to the very date of the premiere the performance was plagued by technical difficulties, and the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift (under whose aegis the premiere was to be held) postponed it. He demanded that the revenue from the concert be promised to local asylums for the mentally ill. The performance was sold out, with gentleman requested not to carry swords or ladies to wear hoops, to make more room in the hall. Handel led the performance from the harpsichord with his frequent collaborator Matthew Dubourg conducting the orchestra.


Ticket for a benefit performance of the Messiah

Handel continued to work on the score and excerpts were performed in 1749 to raise funds for the Foundling Hospital in London (of which Handel was a founder). In 1750, the final  version was presented there and remained the fundraising vehicle for the institution.

Messiah is famous for the Hallelujah Chorus in which the audience stands, a tradition allegedly started at the first London performance on March 23, 1743. King George II rose, and so of course the rest of the audience had to follow. However, there are no eyewitness accounts, and the first mention of it comes 37 years later. Confusingly, it seems that audiences of the time liked to stand to certain pieces of music, such as the Dead March from Saul, and an audience member of a 1750 Messiah noted that the audience stood for the “grand choruses” (note the plural):

Audiences may have been spontaneously standing not because of royal example, but because of the confusing oddity of Handelian oratorio, and the additional oddity of Messiah itself. Handel’s hybrid of sacred subjects with operatic style, moving Bible stories into secular venues, had already struck some puritanical Britons as curious, or worse; Messiah went further, its libretto (by Charles Jennens) not even a dramatic narrative, but a theologically curated collection of Scripture passages.

“An Oratorio either is an Act of Religion, or it is not,’’ complained one anonymous critic on the eve of the London premiere of Messiah. “If it is one I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word.’’ The sermon-like atmosphere of Messiah may have triggered audiences’ churchgoing reflexes, and they may have felt compelled to respond, standing for choruses as if they were hymns – better to be piously safe than sorry. Read more

Tell us about your favorite Christmas music!

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Occasionally people ask me if Halloween is celebrated in England and I tell them that now it’s quite a big deal. I’m surprised that the sweet-loving English took so long to figure out that any day when candy is given away is worth adopting. But when I was growing up we preferred to burn Catholics in effigy. You can read some earlier Risky posts about the Gunpowder Plot, Diane’s in 2007 and mine in 2005, so today I thought I’d talk about fireworks (and who hasn’t written a Vauxhall Gardens scene with fireworks?)

Like so many other inventions, fireworks originated in China, possibly as early as the ninth century, the legend being that common kitchen ingredients, saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal (ugh) combined to explode. So the early emphasis was on loud bangs, thought to scare off evil spirits. When fireworks came west and were adopted by the royal courts of Europe in the Renaissance, the color scheme was somewhat limited at first, mostly in shades of amber, so the emphasis was on elaborate structures built to display the fireworks. The Italian style featured fake buildings, decorated with painted allegorical figures or flowers, whereas the German (Northern School) preferred one centerpiece, such as a figure of Cupid, from which the fireworks emerged.

By the eighteenth century more colors were added to the repertoire and public firework displays became elaborate affairs, often with music, and frequently lasting a couple of hours. The illustration at left is a detail of a fireworks display in Green Park, London, in 1763. One of the most interesting things about this print is that it’s an early 3-D experiment known as a vue d’optique–the words inside the explosion are Vivat Rex in reverse, because the print was designed to be viewed through a mirrored viewer. You can read more about it here.

One of the most famous public fireworks displays was the one in 1749 to celebrate the end of the war for Austrian succession. Handel was commissioned to write the music (Music for the Royal Fireworks), the “machine” from which the fireworks were to be set off took four months to build and 11,000 fireworks were designed by an Italian team led by the noted Gaetano Ruggieri. But the English technicians appointed to set off the fireworks got in a fight with the Italians and half of them were set off prematurely. The rest were never set off. Several spectators died in freak accidents–drowning, falling out of trees. When Princess Di and Prince Charles married in 1981, an attempt was made to replicate this firework display, and it was a dud then, too–“Wedding 6: Fireworks 0” according to the Evening Standard.

One intriguing fact that came out when I was reading about fireworks was that many of the manufacturers were family businesses that spanned several generations. Brocks Fireworks, the oldest English company, was founded early in the eighteenth century and started a tradition of public firework displays for the general public in 1826, and given at the Crystal Palace after 1865. The company was eventually bought out by the now defunct Standard Fireworks. More info on English firework companies and some quite gorgeous artwork here.

Do you have a favorite fictional fireworks scene?

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