This exhibition of photographs by Katie Wilson documents the living conditions of London’s most disadvantaged children. It stands firmly within the mission of the Foundling Museum, in what was the Foundling Hospital set up by Thomas Coram in 1741. Coram’s purpose was to care for the estimated 1,000 children who were abandoned every year in London, resulting from the polarisation of wealth in the Georgian era. Today the site houses a museum and boasts the legacy of being the first children’s charity and public gallery.
Although entitled Bedrooms of London, what soon becomes apparent is that the rooms depicted, overpopulated by one or two beds set against bare and fatigued walls, are the on-room dwelling spaces of entire families, whose lives the exhibition documents.
Families dine, sleep and occupy the same room for most aspects of their indoor lives. Shared bathrooms are used by one boy to complete his homework and by a teenage girl to dress, needing privacy from the three family members she shares a room with.
On entering the gallery, visitors are confronted with the single arresting image of a bed and Moses basket with the door as backdrop. The lack of floor space evokes an atmosphere which would be oppressive for a single occupant, let alone a mother and new born baby.
There is little variation in the devastating nature of the images. What does change is the increasing numbers of inhabitants sharing the space, as reported by Isabella Walker’s narrative placed beside each photo.
In line with Coram’s vision to “help London’s poor and disadvantaged children”, each exhibit is titled with the name of a child who lives in the room photographed — a personal touch which removes the cloak of anonymity from a situation which not enough people know and care about.
In the centre of the gallery a long rectangular table displays a handful of children’s illustrations contrasting the plainness of the bedroom walls with the imaginations of the children who live in them. Beside a drawing of a pink and yellow butterfly, emerging from a radiator with peeling wallpaper, is the inscription: “Despite these living conditions, the children share the universal need to create and dream.”
The final installation is a large diagram illustrating the effect of housing policy on young lives.
While this is directly responsible for the conditions in which these children currently live, it’s clear from reading the narratives that this is only the most recent in a long line of policies and services which have failed these families; three of the mothers featured are victims of trafficking, three are survivors of domestic abuse, one had to stop working due to visa restrictions and several have been placed in temporary accommodation due to falling behind with unregulated, private rents in the wake of delayed Universal Credit payments.
The individual stories culminate into an indictment of a government whose interest lies in satiating the greed of private landlords and property developers at the expense of the reported 700,000 children living below the poverty line in London.
After visiting this exhibition, 278 years after Coram set up his hospital, it’s difficult not to question how much progress has been made. What is evident is the continuing need for collaborations between artists and charities on projects of this nature.
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