Building Study: Zayed Centre, Great Ormond Street, by Stanton Williams

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The £90m research centre for rare diseases gives the world-famous children’s hospital civic presence for the first time, writes Ike Ijeh

With Christmas approaching, some minds might inevitably turn to festive performances of Handel’s Messiah. Handel’s great oratorio was written in London in 1741 but only went on to find international fame after the composer started conducting annual charity fundraising performances of his piece for Bloomsbury’s Foundling Hospital in 1749. The Foundling Hospital had been founded a decade earlier by local philanthropist Thomas Coram for the care of sick children or “foundlings” and Handel’s annual concert was traditionally comprised of blind choristers.

But Handel’s charitable involvement also reflected a wider and thriving artistic agenda pursued by the fledgling hospital. Like Handel, celebrated cartoonist William Hogarth was also a hospital governor and painted several commissions to raise funds for the institution. Works by some of the most famous artists of the day, including Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, were displayed on the hospital walls in a then novel arrangement that may have played a role in helping establish the nearby British Museum and which some historians now believe constituted Britain’s first ever art gallery.

Today the Foundling Hospital is long gone but its pioneering paediatric legacy lives on in the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital just opposite the Foundling’s original site. Great Ormond Street is one of world’s leading children’s hospitals and, after steadily expanding since opening in 1852 with just 12 beds, it now occupies a full island site just east of Russell Square.

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