Chosen by Bridget, a Museum volunteer

About the object

After the Royal Charter was granted for the establishment of the new Foundling Hospital in London in 1739, the Governors wrote to European institutions, including the one in Paris, to gather information about the practicalities of running a foundling hospital.

The Paris Hospital allowed mothers to leave their baby anonymously at the gate, but this system was not adopted by the London Foundling Hospital. Instead they kept careful, confidential records, originally including identifying ‘tokens’. From the late eighteenth century, Mothers had to ‘petition’ the London Foundling Hospital for their child to be admitted, explaining their circumstances.

In 1801, the admission policy was changed, and the Hospital would accept only the firstborn illegitimate children of women previously of respectable character. This resulted in a difficult and intrusive process for mothers, including an interview by a panel of male Governors.

Purchased by the Thomas Coram Foundation, 1987. Purchased for the Foundling Museum through the generosity of its supporters, 2015

About the artist

Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817-1880) was born in St Petersburg to British parents. His family returned to England in 1823, and in 1836 he enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools. He soon became a member of ‘the Clique’, with fellow artists such as Alfred Elmore, Augustus Egg, and William Powell Frith. They wanted to paint ‘modern subjects with a strong emotional element, as a rebellion against the authority of the Royal Academy.’ He is best known for ‘Eastward Ho’, a patriotic scene painted the year after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He was elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1879 and died in London the following year.

A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris, c.1855, Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817-1880), oil on canvas

Creative responses & inspirations

Below is the first paragraph of Bridget's draft novel, Paris 1856, inspired by this painting.

It is dusk. A young woman walks slowly towards the imposing entrance to L’Hospice des Enfants Trouvés, the Paris Foundling Hospital, on the aptly named Rue d’Enfer (Street of Hell ). The great edifice rises up in front of her - its windows grilled and the massive door shut and barred. Halfway down the door is the tour. Resembling a large letterbox, it rotates to draw whatever is placed inside into the building. To the right of that is a long bell rope. With a sigh, as she reaches the door, the woman draws aside her cloak. In doing so the ribbons of her bonnet come undone and the bonnet falls to the ground. She pays this no heed and from under her old cloak she brings out a small basket lined with linen, the swaddled infant inside covered with a neatly embroidered coverlet. Her tears fall unstopped as she gazes down at the small figure and with trembling hands she lays the basket in the tour. Out of a small purse she pulls two pieces of paper. The larger one she tucks down the side of the basket. The smaller one she reads, as she has done so often since she composed it, the words written there: ‘I have been baptised. My name is Delphine. Please care for me. I have been torn from my mother’s heart.’ Slipping the paper under the baby’s coverlet and with a final agonised look, the young woman reaches over to the bell rope and pulls it. She turns quickly and disappears into the gathering gloom.