Catalogue entry Nicola Naismith in the RSVP exhibition at the the Foundling Museum with Commissions East, Bloomsbury 2007. Gill Hedley is a writer, an independent curator and a consultant on contemporary visual arts. Nicola Naismithartist
It is easy to forget that foundlings left the Foundling Hospital at the age of ten until 1806 when the age was raised to 14. Always aiming to create useful citizens, the Governors also wanted them to be trained “to undergo with Contentment the most Servile and laborious Offices”. They were taught only basic literacy and then girls were expected to enter domestic service and boys to join the army or navy or be apprenticed.
It is this vital element of the workforce of eighteenth century London that has been the focus of Nicola Naismith’s research and new commission.
In particular she has concentrated on the trade of tailoring. William Hogarth recognised the significance of apprenticeships, including tailoring, in several of his works. Hogarth also designed the Hospital uniform in 1745.
The first comic series that Hogarth produced as affordable engravings rather than paintings was Industry and Idleness. Francis Goodchild and Tom Idle are fellow apprentices in a silk weavers’ workshop in Spitalfields. Goodchild takes over from his master and becomes Lord Mayor; Tom is hanged at Tyburn.
In the opening scene of The Rake’s Progress, the ne’er-do-well Tom Rakewell is seen being fitted for a lavish new suit by his tailor while his servants are still in mourning for his father.
Nicola Naismith has taken apprenticeship as a metaphor for the study of process on which much of her own work focuses. Apprentices were taught to mimic, copy then perfect their master’s technique, learning as he too had learned. The artist herself uses traditional skills and re-invents them through a range of digital and integrated making techniques.
Extending her interests in work and working lives, this commission makes reference to white and blue collar working practices, the historical and the contemporary and the relationships between manual and conceptual dexterity. She has made use of research centres including the London Metropolitan Archive looking at original Foundling Hospital documents. In the studio, she has focused on specific apprentice activities and examined the relationship between skill and body movements.
The work is sited in the Coram’s Children gallery crucially just before the visitor leaves this contemporary display and enters the first of the historic rooms. The choice of the window was made because of the “inherent relationship between light and detailed tailoring work. Historical images show the posture of the tailor sitting up on the work bench next to a window making use of natural light sources.“
The commission has developed through a process of research, developmental diagrams, workbooks, drawings, images and video footage. It has been a sensitive response to an easily overlooked aspect of the Foundling story that should resonate with anyone who works or learns.