Found: a rather magical exhibition at the Foundling Museum - review

Thomas Heatherwick's Seventy Years of Stirring (2015) 
Thomas Heatherwick's Seventy Years of Stirring (2015)  Credit: Ed Lyon

Mark Hudson is impressed by this show at a delightful museum that cleverly turns the concept of the 'found object' on its head

Exhibitions curated by leading artists have become ten-a-penny. Artists, indeed, spend so much time these days “interpreting” archives and “responding to” museum collections, it’s a wonder they have time to do any of their own work – if the notion of “their own work” still has meaning in our age of cultural recycling and appropriation. With curated exhibitions by conceptualist du jour Ryan Gander and Tuner Prize-winner Elizabeth Price soon to open (in Wakefield and Manchester respectively), sculptor Cornelia Parker – whose 1991 work Cold, Dark Matter (an exploded garden shed) has become one of the signature works of British contemporary art – takes on one of London’s most atmospheric, but lesser visited cultural attractions, the Foundling Museum.

Housed in a Georgian-style mansion in a quiet Bloomsbury square, the museum houses the remnants of the Foundling Hospital, created in 1739 to care for abandoned babies, an institution with an extraordinary cultural history. The painter Hogarth founded Britain’s first public art gallery here to raise funds, while the composer Handel staged annual benefit concerts of The Messiah in the chapel. Parker’s exhibition nods to this rich past while exploring the notion of the “found object” – existing objects employed in works of art – in relation to the “foundling”. Around the building’s creaking staircases and stucco’d state rooms, she has dotted a quirky array of objects provided by 68 of her artist, writer and musician friends, from Anthony Gormley and Thomas Heatherwick to Marina Warner and Jarvis Cocker.

Bob and Roberta Smith's I Found Love (2016, detail)  Credit: Bob and Roberta Smith

If the idea of subversively dropping unlikely objects into existing displays has become a commonplace in this kind of exhibition, the best works here have a disconcerting, even disturbing resonance. Beside Hogarth’s wonderful painting March of the Guards to Finchley, artist Keith Coventry presents bronze facsimiles of abstracted heads that were mysteriously “decapitated” from a Henry Moore sculpture. In the magnificent governors’ meeting room, Gavin Turk has placed a sleeping-bag that looks as though it contains a rough sleeper, though it is in fact meticulously painted bronze.

Other objects are more whimsical. Parker herself presents a series of deflated balloons from unsuccessful political campaigns, including Jeffrey Archer’s tragi-comic attempt to become mayor of London, while Jeremy Deller drops John Lennon’s school detention record into a case full of foundling memorabilia, a “relic”, he writes, “from the late 20th century religion known as rock and roll”.

The best exhibits combine a cultural double meaning with a degree of autobiographical significance, such as Richard Wentworth’s eerie fragment of a TV documentary on Roy Strong, a figure from the artist’s Sixties youth, in which his own long-dead grandmother appears quite by chance.  Best of all are fragments of Jimi Hendrix’s staircase. Parker has embedded them into the basement stairwell of Handel's House in Mayfair, where the guitarist lived in the late Sixties. 

It’s a magical moment in a rather magical exhibition, housed in a building which is itself a kind of found object. While the present structure dates only from the Thirties, its rococo interiors were retrieved from the original Foundling Hospital, which stood nearby until its demolition in 1926.

Until September 4. Tickets: 020 7841 3600;