paintings

The joys and tragedies of childhood are captured on canvas over centuries

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Fleeting moments captured in time make up the opening exhibition of this year at Compton Verney art gallery in south Warwickshire.

Painting Childhood: from Holbein to Freud, and Childhood Now are two linked exhibitions, featuring what curator Dr Amy Orrock believes is the first exhibition on the subject to cover 500 years of works.

The starting point for the exhibition was three paintings in Compton Verney’s own collection, but these have been augmented with many loans, including 22 from the Royal Collection, the first time they have been shown in an exhibition about childhood. They do of course show higher-class children, and they remain the focus for most of the exhibition – not surprisingly ‘real’ poor children seem to rarely have been painted.

The exhibition starts with images from the time of the renaissance, when intimate sketches of babies and infants were generally made to help in the creation of religious paintings, their faces becoming that of Jesus or the infant St John the Baptist. There is a drawing by Francesco Salviati, Study of a Child, dating back to around 1500.

The next section on Royal Portraits looks at how status can be conveyed through the body of a child, and shows how iconography was often used. The children are also of course usually dressed in the richest type of clothes.

One of Compton Verney’s own paintings, Edward VI by Guillim Scrots, from 1550 (top), shows the young king holding a flower, while other flowers turn away from the sun and towards him instead, showing his importance.

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The five eldest children of Charles I, by Anthony Van Dyck, from 1637 (above), shows the eldest boy with his hand draped casually on the head of a big dog, showing his future status and power to subdue all he wants.

There is a separate practice image of two girls from the right of this portrait, but tragically, as in quite a few of the paintings of children at this time, they weren’t to have long lives so are captured here at their best. Princess Elizabeth lived to be 15, and Princess Anne just three.

Dr Orrock said that paintings of children became more sentimental as time went on, as the painting Victoria, Princess Royal, with Eos, by Edwin Landseer shows. The baby is pictured with the loyal dog draped across her cot, and watched over by a dove. Queen Victoria and Albert made many delightful casual drawings of their own children, and a number are on show here, depicting a baby crawling after a ball, being bottle fed and other normal activities.

The exhibition continues into a section on Playing and Growing, showing children with toys or pets. Not all are joyful though, in an era with high mortality rates for children.

The Graham Children by Hogarth shows the lovely family, with a musical box, and a cat eyeing the bird. By the time it was finished in 1742 the youngest child had died. It is significant that the child is in a wheeled chair, on the way to the afterlife, and a cupid with a scythe is placed on a clock.

Jan Steen’s A School for Boys and Girls, 1670, is a rare image here showing a lower class of child, as two teachers supervise a class of unruly youngsters.

The themed section on Fantasy and Reality shows children being used as models for paintings. There is Gainsborough’s A Peasant Girl Gathering Faggots in a Wood from 1782, featuring a child acting out the poor scene, and little Penelope Boothby in Reynolds’s oil of 1788 showing the girl in a cute costume which went on to become a fancy dress outfit for decades. Perhaps the most famous of this section was John Everett Millais’s Bubbles from 1886, showing the child looking wistfully up at bubbles floating above his head; it was later used in a Pears Soap Advert.

The gallery on Family Life brings the works in to the twentieth century, showing artists’ children as their own models. Bonnard’s The Evening Meal of 1903 shows the family sitting down to their food, painted as though from another room glimpsing in to the peaceful scene. Camille Pissarro’s Jeanne Holding a Fan of 1863 is sadder, the girl slumped forward, not looking well, and she later died. Louise Borgeois’s etching shows the woman looking pained as she gives birth to her equally-sized child, as the artist tried to show the struggles of being a mother and an artist.

Lucian Freud’s Annabel from 1967 captures the girl reaching teenage years, looking pensive in a chair.

To complete the focus on childhood, there’s a further exhibition of works by three contemporary artists, Childhood Now. Matthew Krishanu spent a significant part of his childhood in Bangladesh and India and paints images of what he calls the two boys, him and his brother, from photos of that time. In Limbs they are up a tree, their legs mirroring its branches, and in other works they swim and climb on rocks.

Mark Fairnington paints his own twin sons as they grow up, their skin spookily white and their red hair a startling contrast. In many they look very similar but there’s always a difference, whether in hair style, or bruises on their legs.

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Chantal Joffe has painted her daughter Esme since her birth, and they are often shown together too, as in Self portrait combing Esme’s hair. The girl is also seen playing with friends, and growing into the lanky girl now watching TV with her mum.

It’s a large and varied exhibition, with lots to see and read, which brings together interesting works in a good thematic way, and introduces three current artists whose work is also exciting to explore.

The exhibitions are on until June 16.

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