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Children take centre stage at Compton Verney Art Gallery

by Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent

The five eldest children of Charles by Anthony Van Dyck
The five eldest children of Charles I, Anthony Van Dyck, 1637, Oil on canvas, Royal Collection

“Never work with animals or children,” they say. But as a new exhibition at Compton Verney Art Gallery of paintings of children created in the past 500 years shows there are scores of artists who dealt well with the difficulties, presumably ignoring such truisms.

In the 60 works on display at the Warwickshire gallery, there are also a fair few animals, placed in the painting as a much loved member of the family perhaps or artfully to improve a composition. The most unmissable of these is the giant mastiff in Sir Anthony van Dyck’s magnificent The Five Eldest Children of Charles I (1637) where the dog sits contentedly centre stage beside the future Charles II regally leaning his arm on the dog’s hefty head. The other children are arranged prettily around them, and there’s also a little lapdog in the corner, but it’s all about Charles, standing in his pink satin and lace suit, a picture of power even at the young age of seven.

The exhibition starts with some sensitive drawings from earlier centuries, for instance Domenichino’s studies of a sleeping child (c.1600-1640) and Federico Barocci’s pastel study of the head and shoulders of a swaddled baby (c.1595). Drawings of infants like these were routinely made as studies for the Christ child in religious paintings.

Federico Barocci drawing of The head and shoulders of a swaddled baby, lying down
Federico Barocci (Urbino c. 1535-Urbino 1612), The head and shoulders of a swaddled baby, lying down, c.1595, pastels on blue paper, RCIN 90522

The earliest painted portraits of children were of those from royal or illustrious families. Two royal

paintings in Compton Verney’s permanent collection were the starting point for this show. Both are portraits of Edward VI, one of which, Guillim Scrots’s, flatters the young king by portraying the flowers turning towards him because he outshines the sun.

Until Van Dyck’s portraits of royal children changed things, earlier on if children did appear in paintings they mostly looked a lot like mini adults. Van Dyck’s arguably are the earliest depictions of future monarchs that appear both powerful and childlike. His oil sketch of Charles I’s infant daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne (it was probably a preparatory sketch for the 1637 oil painting) is simply lovely and curiously modern despite the little girls wearing caps and pearls.

By the nineteenth century royal portraiture had become much more relaxed, and the exhibition has some intimate examples of Queen Victoria’s etchings of her children asleep, being fed or playing.

Bracelet with portraits of Victoria and Albert's children
Bracelet with miniatures of the Royal children, gold and blue champlevé enamel, pearls, enamel, hair, RCIN 4797

There are many Royal Collection loans in this exhibition. Among them is a bracelet given by Albert to Victoria on her 26th birthday - when it included a miniature of their eldest child, Victoria. Subsequently, miniatures of their other five children were added to the enamel and pearl bracelet when they reached the age of four. Each portrait is engraved on the reverse with the child’s name and a lock of their hair.

In a section called Playing and Growing not only do we come across pictures of children at play and learning - Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s Boy with a Lesson Book, c. 1757, is a terrific example of studiousness, and Jan Steen’s School for Boys and Girls, 1670 of rumbustious energy - but also pictures memorialising children. These not only demonstrate the role of sentiment in children’s portraiture but also the high infant mortality rate of earlier centuries.

William Hogarth’s The Graham Children, 1742, looks like an ordinary happy family gathered together informally for a portrait of the children, but the youngest died before the painting was finished, so the image also became a poignant memorial.

Moving into later centuries, we come to the popular ‘fancy pictures’ (a term to cover genre scenes, combining everyday life and a storyline straight from the artist’s imagination). They often feature peasant or beggar children - street children were commonly used as models. On show, for example, are Murillo’s Invitation to a Game of Argolla, 1665-70, Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Pas Mèche (Nothing Doing) which is a charming picture ofinsouciance, and Gainsborough’s A Peasant Girl Gathering Faggots in a Wood, 1782.

Mark Fairnington, Lee and Jason, 2011 ⓒ Courtesy of the artist, Photography by Peter White FXP Photography.

Also here is the hugely popular Millais’s Bubbles (1886) - the very picture that became the long-running Pear’s soap advertisement - of a sweet golden-haired boy looking up at a bubble he’s made, the work emblematic of innocence and the fragility of life.

This show is thoughtfully curated and wide-ranging in the artists included. Its subtitle, From Holbein to Freud tells us to expect quite an array, and that’s what we get with works from Hans Holbein the Younger, Van Dyck,  Jan Steen, Murillo, Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Zoffany, Millais, to Stanley Spencer, Epstein, Louise Bourgeois, Lucian Freud and more.

Plus there’s an accompanying exhibition, Childhood Now, that brings together works by three of Britain’s leading contemporary figurative painters - Chantal Joffe, Mark Fairnington and Matthew Krishanu. All give very personal responses to childhood: Joffe’s expressive paintings charting her daughter’s mid-teenage years, and Fairnington’s meticulous paintings of his identical twin sons, while Krishanu captures delightful childhood memories of adventures with his brother growing up in Bangladesh.


Painting Childhood: from Holbein to Freud

Showing until: 16 June 2019

Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park


“Never work with animals or children” - W.C. Fields (1880-1946).


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