diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Bloomsbury Festival is taking place this weekend. If you've never heard of it before that's because it's new, and because it wasn't terribly well advertised (unless you just happened to be wandering the backstreets behind Russell Square tube station). The festival purports to be a celebration of the arts, although in reality it's been sponsored by the local shopping centre. It's not a bad little shopping centre either, so long as you've come to admire the Modernist terraced architecture and not the revamped parade of trendy mainstream shops therein. Various stalls and arty activities were on offer in the local park yesterday, as well as blokes on stilts and a farmers market. Also as part of the festival a couple of local museums which usually charge a fiver were open for free, so I went along.

In amongst Bloomsbury's Georgian terraces stands the unassuming facade of 48 Doughty Street, once home to the great novelist Charles Dickens. He lived here with his new wife Catherine between 1837 and 1839 - only a brief spell but long enough to write The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. This is the only one of Dickens' many residences which still stands, and today it's home to the Charles Dickens Museum. The house is quite narrow but spreads upwards over four floors, from the dark basement scullery to the airy upper bedrooms. Plenty of memorabilia has been packed inside, including portraits, correspondence and the desk at which Charles wrote the final unfinished page of Edwin Drood. A small exhibition brings to life the author's deep-seated concern in ending social injustice, including an obsessive interest in the running of a home for "the redemption of prostitutes". And of course there are original editions of Dickens' much-loved novels, each originally published in 20 monthly parts and snapped up by an eager public. You can take a virtual tour of the museum here - you may find that this sufficiently satisfies your Old Curiosity that you need have no Great Expectations of visiting in person. [map]

Well hidden off Brunswick Square, the Foundling Museum is an unusual collection of 18th century treasures. The building was once part of the Foundling Hospital, established on this site 250 years ago to care for the welfare of London's abandoned children. Poverty in the capital was rife, and three quarters of children never lived to see their fifth birthday. Fortunate orphans ended up here in Bloomsbury Fields to train as apprentices or domestic servants. The story of the hospital and its founding philanthropist Thomas Coram is well told on the ground floor. On the first floor, and throughout, several impressive portraits adorn the walls. Many are by William Hogarth, one of the hospital's original benefactors, and through his efforts this became London's very first ever public art gallery. The top floor of the museum is given over to the life and work of George Frideric Handel, another generous patron of the hospital. He gave benefit performances in the chapel, kicking off with the newly-written Messiah, and bequeathed a manuscript of his masterwork to the hospital. In the upper room today you can see Handel's will and a small selection of memorabilia, and even sit in red leather armchairs to listen to the great man's music. Meanwhile outside in the original grounds are Coram's Fields, a very special children's playpark where no unaccompanied adults are admitted. You can read more about the history of the Foundling Hospital here, or bring a child and take a look for yourself. [map]

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