Two girls appear on a split screen, one black, one white. Each is anxiously rocking a baby. One after the other, they are called before a panel of grave-faced men to be questioned about their children. Or rather, to be asked how they came to be pregnant in the first place, whether the conception was forced upon them, and in what circumstances. What will they do if the baby is accepted, asks the senior inquisitor, strictness rising in his voice. And have the girls attended Sunday school?
This is the opening twist in artist and model Lily Cole’s fine new film for the Foundling Museum. The disjuncture between past and present is deliberate. For although these scenes are filmed in contemporary times, conveying the hardships of teenage single mothers in council flats, parts of the script are taken directly from the transcripts of actual cases that came before Thomas Coram’s Foundling hospital for 19th-century children whose mothers could not keep them.
Old words are put into new mouths, to shattering effect. Did you think he was going to marry you? Did he just disappear? The girls nod, clinging to their babies, unable to look after them, unable to give them up. Their dilemma has its metaphor in the random system adopted by the hospital when there were too many applications. Mothers were presented with a bag from which to draw a ball. A white ball meant the baby got in, a black ball the opposite, and a red ball meant that the mother had a second chance.
In Cole’s film, the white mother gets a white ball, which leads to a harrowing scene of farewell; the black mother gets a red ball and feels she is momentarily reprieved. But what will become of her baby son Heath remains a mystery, returning the viewer to the single line from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that precedes the film: “But where did he come from, the dark little thing?”
The dark thing is Heathcliff, a foundling discovered on the streets of Liverpool (where this film has also been screened). It was the sight of London babies abandoned in this way that inspired the sea captain Thomas Coram to found his hospital for “exposed and deserted young children” in 1739. He walked for miles, gathering signatures to petition for a royal charter, a campaign that took more than 17 years.
On the site of the old hospital in Bloomsbury stands the Foundling Museum, containing the original wooden staircase down which generations of abandoned children slid, and many of the paintings that once hung on the hospital’s walls. One of Coram’s co-founders was William Hogarth, whose ebullient The March of the Guards to Finchley, showing English troops massing to fight off the supposed threat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, cheered on by London crowds, was decisive in turning the hospital into the first public gallery of art in Britain.
The first 2,000 customers to place advance orders for an engraving were offered lottery tickets by Hogarth to win the actual painting. He also gave almost 200 tickets free to the hospital, which won. The funds went to the children. Hogarth staged shows in the dining room, and some works remained in the hospital – Gainsborough’s circular Charter House, with its eerie play of harsh sun and shadow; portraits by Allan Ramsay and Joshua Reynolds; above all, Hogarth’s immense likeness of Thomas Coram as a Falstaffian sea dog, with a merry but illusion-free smile.
The museum commissions artists to respond to the hospital’s history. Cole, model turned actress turned art film director, is the latest Foundling Fellow, succeeding Cornelia Parker, Grayson Perry and Yinka Shonibare. Shonibare’s Trumpet Boy stands at the foot of the stairs, a black globe for a head, dressed in Victorian clothes made out of contemporary west African cloth, the artist’s trademark dissonance, lest we forget that some of the foundlings were mixed-race. This was the case with Black Peggy, raped by a white servant, upon whom Cole’s black girl is based. Peggy has a far harder time than the white girl before the inquisitor (beautifully played by John Sessions), who foolishly asks if her baby is “coloured”.
Peggy’s own piercingly tragic petition to have her child taken appears in a glass case alongside the film. It stands as a precise example of the challenge faced by these artists: how to reflect, illuminate, or in any way create a sufficient parallel to these tales of real life. Cole has succeeded, with her curious and gracefully filmed parable of the agonies of adoption, the past dramatised in the present. Another recently commissioned artist, Jodie Carey, has produced three installations, ranging from a sea of white cloth fragments dipped in liquid clay to the bronze cast of the hole left when a rope was buried in the earth. All require copious wall texts to overcome their lack of visual eloquence; they cannot speak for themselves.
More remarkable are some of the works made by adults who were once children in care – the rows of white shirts in all different sizes worn to school in London. Instead of name tags, these have labels stitched into the collars bearing the phrases they too often heard: “Who brought you up?” “Why come to school if you can’t bring a pen?” The gorgeous “sky marbles” made out of coloured waste paper by today’s children in memory of foundlings long ago. But above all the array of mementos mothers left their babies in the 18th century – a stitched initial, a twisted ribbon, a delicately carved penny: the art of true love.
• Lily Cole: Balls is at the Foundling Museum, London, until 2 December