When London’s Foundling Hospital opened its doors in 1741, mothers leaving their babies in its care were asked to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known thereafter if necessary’. Some of the mothers were so poor that the tokens consisted of simple buttons with an unusual coloured thread or pennies engraved or defaced in some way to make them distinguishable from others.
The Foundling Hospital continued its work until 1954 and is now a children’s charity and museum. Last summer, the artist Cornelia Parker curated an exhibition called Found, which invited sixty artists to contribute tokens of their own responding to both the word itself and the spirit of the museum.
Ms Parker is a remarkable woman – and artist – in her own right. Her best-known piece is probably Cold Dark Matter, a wooden garden shed that has been reconstructed at the moment when it explodes, but she rarely does the same thing twice. So she has produced drawings using her own blood, others using ink made from destroyed pornographic films confiscated by HM Customs, and a gold tooth filling melted and stretched through the eye of a needle. She took a macrophotograph of the seat of Sigmund Freud’s leather chair and called it Marks made by Freud, Subconsciously. She has also photographed an Arab man who makes crowns of thorns for Christian tourists in Bethlehem and exhibited the words crossed out of manuscripts by Charlotte Bronte as rather beautiful semi-abstracts.
I’m travelling this week and have nothing finished to share with you so instead I’ll show you three ‘found’ objects of my own. The first is a pencil I discovered in my Mother’s house, one of the ones I would have been given half a century ago by my aunt who owned a petrol station. With one of these and an order pad I would draw quietly in a corner while the grown-ups talked. There’s also a photograph from around the same time – possibly taken at my grandfather’s wedding to his second wife – where we all look like characters from some historical drama. It’s sobering to discover that photographs from my childhood look as if they’re from another era. And finally an odd, poignant note that I found in my Mother’s bedside table. With her dementia there’s now little point in asking her to elaborate on the sad story that lies behind these few scribbled words.
I’m sure many of you have objects like this that have returned to you in some way. On their own they may have little resonance, but put them together and they start to build up a fragmented picture of a forgotten time. Be careful, though, there are shadows in the corner of the room, ghosts in the recesses of your memory…