Captain Coram was born in the year 1668, bred to the sea, and passed the first part of his life as master of a vessel trading to the colonies. While he resided in the vicinity of Rotherhithe, his avocations obliging him to go early into the city and return late, he frequently saw deserted infants exposed to the inclemencies of the seasons, and through the indigence or cruelty of their parents left to casual relief, or untimely death. This naturally excited his compassion, and led him to project the establishment of an hospital for the reception of exposed and deserted young children; in which humane design he laboured more than seventeen years, and at last, by his unwearied application, obtained the royal charter, bearing date the 17th of October, 1739, for its incorporation.
He was highly instrumental in promoting another good design, viz. the procuring a bounty upon naval stores imported from the colonies to Georgia and Nova Scotia. But the charitable plan which he lived to make some progress in, though not to complete, was a scheme for uniting the Indians in North America more closely with the British Government, by an establishment for the education of Indian girls. Indeed he spent a great part of his life in serving the public, and with so total a disregard to his private interest, that in his old age he was himself supported by a pension of somewhat more than a hundred pounds a year, raised for him at the solicitation of Sir Sampson Gideon and Dr. Brocklesby, by the voluntary subscriptions of public-spirited persons, at the head of whom was the Prince of Wales. On application being made to this venerable and good old man, to know whether a subscription being opened for his benefit would not offend him, he gave this noble answer: “I have not wasted the little wealth of which I was formerly possessed in self-indulgence or vain expenses, and am not ashamed to confess, that in this my old age I am poor.”
This singularly humane, persevering, and memorable man died at his lodgings near Leicester-square, March 29, 1751, and was interred, pursuant to his own desire, in the vault under the chapel of the Foundling Hospital, where an historic epitaph records his virtues, as Hogarth’s portrait has preserved his honest countenance.
“The portrait which I painted with most pleasure,” says Hogarth, “and in which I particularly wished to excel, was that of Captain Coram for the Foundling Hospital; and if I am so wretched an artist as my enemies assert, it is somewhat strange that this, which was one of the first I painted the size of life, should stand the test of twenty years’ competition, and be generally thought the best portrait in the place, notwithstanding the first painters in the kingdom exerted all their talents to vie with it.
“For the portrait of Mr. Garrick in Richard III. I was paid two hundred pounds, (which was more than any English artist ever received for a single portrait,) and that too by the sanction of several painters who had been previously consulted about the price, which was not given without mature consideration.
“Notwithstanding all this, the current remark was, that portraits were not my province; and I was tempted to abandon the only lucrative branch of my art, for the practice brought the whole nest of phyzmongers on my back, where they buzzed like so many hornets. All these people have their friends, whom they incessantly teach to call my women harlots, my Essay on Beauty borrowed, and my composition and engraving contemptible.
“This so much disgusted me, that I sometimes declared I would never paint another portrait, and frequently refused when applied to; for I found by mortifying experience, that whoever would succeed in this branch, must adopt the mode recommended in one of Gay’s fables, and make divinities of all who sit to him. Whether or not this childish affectation will ever be done away is a doubtful question; none of those who have attempted to reform it have yet succeeded; nor, unless portrait painters in general become more honest, and their customers less vain, is there much reason to expect they ever will.”
Though thus in a state of warfare with his brother artists, he was occasionally gratified by the praise of men whose judgment was universally acknowledged, and whose sanction became a higher honour, from its being neither lightly nor indiscriminately given.
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