Pictures of Innocence Children
in 18th Century Portraiture

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

The past, it has been said, is another country. Every childhood is, by definition, ‘lost’. It is a land that we have all known but to which, as healthy adults, we can never return. ‘Childish’ and ‘childlike’ are not compliments; think Michael Jackson. In contemporary society the child is largely perceived as in need of protection from the harsh realities of the adult world. The sex abuser is considered transgressive because he besmirches the purity of the child’s existence. Such attitudes were not always the case. For the role of the child is as much socially constructed as it is biological and has changed through the ages.

The eighteen century witnessed a revolution in the fundamental attitudes toward the nature of childhood. In previous ages children had been seen as miniature and immature adults tainted, at birth, by original sin. Until the 18th century, portraits of children had been painted according to conventions that had been established in the Renaissance. Boys were portrayed as future leaders, girls as brides and potential breeding stock. By the 18th century the offspring of the nobility and the growing middle classes were beginning to play a more prominent role in family life. The age of enlightenment saw the birth of the ‘nuclear’ family. In 1692 the English philosopher John Locke published his thesis Some Thoughts Concerning Education which had a huge influence on the upbringing of those children lucky enough to receive education. Locke saw the child’s mind as a tabula rasa ‘white paper, or wax, to be moulded or fashioned as one pleases’.

Among the moneyed classes parents and their children engaged in more ‘permissive’, loving relationships which engendered mutual affection and respect, shifts in child rearing and educational attitudes included new interests in sport, games and play. It was no longer considered necessary that all ‘childish’ activities should be dispensed with, sometimes as young as the age of seven, in order to concentrate on studies that would produce conduct appropriate to a future role in society. The wealthy began to treat their children as objects on whom they were prepared to spend large sums of money not only for their education, but also for their entertainment and amusement. These attitudes were reflected in the images of children presented within painting, particularly the portrait.

Pictures of Innocence: Children in 18th-century Portraiture is a smaller version of an exhibition previously shown at the Holburne Museum, Bath, which has been aimed at a more general, less specialised audience and tailored to fit Abbot Hall, itself built in the 18th century. By showing much of the work in a domestic setting amid the Adams style interiors with their damask lined walls and contemporary furniture and by providing an interactive room for children it is hoped to attract a wider, more family orientated audience; though whether this really is an exhibition to attract and interest children I rather doubt.

William Hogarth The House of Cards 1730William Hogarth The House of Cards 1730

With the advent of the cult of sensibility that dominated art and aesthetics in the second half of the eighteenth century human affection rather than reason or judgement became increasingly valued as the basis of moral life and was considered among those of a liberal and enlightened bent to be more virtuous. It was William Hogarth who, arguably, was the first European artist to develop the child portrait as a genre in its own right. In 1730 he painted the first of his portraits focusing exclusively on children, a pair of small-scale works known as ‘conversation pieces’ The House of Cards and The Tea Party, which are shown here. Although the children are seen doing childish things these portraits are laden with symbolic references and can be interpreted as allegories. The children themselves are decidedly odd, with large heads, bulging eyes and small doll-like bodies. Hogarth had no children of his own but his fondness for them can be seen in his more realistic, fresh faced portraits of Hannah and George Osborne, offspring of Dr. John Ranby, surgeon to George II.

Whilst paintings such as Francis Cotes’ Lewis Cage (The Young Cricketer) of Milgate Park, Maidstone, Kent, painted in 1768 aimed to show their subjects in an ostensibly informal light with unbuttoned waistcoat and collapsed stocking, enjoying the increasingly popular game of cricket, the pose – leaning on a cricket bat – is borrowed from antique sculpture and the paintings of Van Dyck. The young Lewis Cage is thus established, at only five years old, as master of all he surveys.

Thomas Gainsborough The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly 1759
Thomas Gainsborough The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, 1759

In contrast Thomas Gainsborough’s portraits of children are among the first to show their unique physical and psychological characteristics. In his late career he had enormous success with his ‘fancy pictures’, sentimentalised images of rustic peasant children in poetic landscapes often at a cottage door. But it is his lovely painting of his two daughters chasing a butterfly that shows real affection and a sensitive awareness towards his subject. More naturalistic than any of his commissioned portraits the little girls are portrayed as individual, quizzical and intelligent in their pursuit of a white butterfly – image of the transience of childhood – against the backdrop of a dark wood, itself symbolic of the dangers of the wider adult world.

Ideas of empathy were very much part of the ‘cult of sensibility’ and their development was seen as central to a moral life. This was an important factor in the treatment of children and their subsequent representation within art. In an era of shockingly high infant mortality this sentiment is apparent in the portraits commissioned to commemorate dead children. It is quite chilling how many of those portrayed in this exhibition died before reaching maturity. Pompeo Batoni’s Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with their daughter Barbara show the couple united in grief by their posthumously painted child, struck down by a fever whilst they were travelling in Italy. The poignant oil sketch by the Scottish painter, Allan Ramsay, of his fourteen month old son on his deathbed was executed as a way of dealing with his grief.

Johan Zoffany Three Sons of John, 3rd Earl of Bute / Three Daughters of John, 3rd Earl of Bute c1763-4Johan Zoffany Three Sons of John, 3rd Earl of Bute / Three Daughters of John, 3rd Earl of Bute c1763-4

Following on from the publication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, ou de l’education in 1762 childhood was seen as a ‘pure’ state that stood in contrast to the detrimental effects of civilisation. In Johan Zoffany’s paintings of the Bute family, the two groups of children are not portrayed as miniature adults but shown playing with a pet squirrel and looking for a bird’s nest. Though the rather arch arrangement of figures and the luxury of their fashionable dress leave us in no doubt that these were essentially social portraits.

Among the most modern and psychologically profound paintings on show is Joshua Reynolds A Boy Reading painted in 1777. In this tender, brooding, introspective portrait, with its Rembrandtesque tonalities, the young sitter is shown lost in concentration reading a book. At the end of the dark, enclosed room where he sits is a small window – an image, perhaps, of the power of the imagination to open up new vistas. The irony of this penetrating portrait, painted by a man who had no children, is that the model was known to Reynolds only at ‘Net Boy’ for he made a living making and repairing nets and was almost certainly illiterate.

Sir Thomas Lawrence Lady Georgiana Fane
Sir Thomas Lawrence Lady Georgiana Fane

After Reynolds death in 1792, Sir Thomas Lawrence became the most fashionable painter of the child portrait. Often painted outside his children are shown enjoying the extremes of landscape as in the depiction of Lady Georgiana Fane. Here the little girl is seen barefoot, dressed in ragged clothes against a wild and rugged backdrop. The image reflects the new spirit of Romanticism exemplified by Wordsworth’s poetry, while the unusual setting and choice of clothes is likely to have been that of her fashionable socialite mother, the second wife of the 10th Earl of Westmorland, the heiress Jane Saunders, eccentric for her humour and wit. Nowadays she may well have been called Peaches or Fifi Trixibell.

By the 1790s the child portrait was fully established as a branch of portraiture with its own rules, codes and etiquette, children were also for the first time dressed in clothes especially designed for children. As the 18th century turned to the 19th images of children became increasingly mawkish and sentimental. The portrait of Penelope Boothby, by Joshua Reynolds, the only child of Sir Brooke Boothby, friend and publisher of Rousseau, is depicted as a sweet little blonde in a white lawn dress and big floppy hat. Shortly before her sixth birthday she died suddenly. Her parents had been arguing over which doctor to call and parted at her grave to remain tragically permanently estranged. Not exhibited until 1871 it became one of Reynolds’ most celebrated works influencing Sir John Everett Millais’s Cherry Ripe where the small girl is dressed similarly to Penelope only with pink ribbons adorning her attire rather than blue. The painting earned Millais 1,000 guineas. The child portrait had been transformed into a sentimental marketing object which would come to grace the lid of a thousand of biscuit tins. The Edwardian era was filled with idealised pictures of childhood from Peter Pan to Alice in Wonderland. It was not until the advent of Freud that the image of childhood would change once more. More recently Nabokov and Ian McEwen in literature, Paula Rego and Balthus in art all attest to the way adults re-invent images of childhood. After them it can never be seen as quite so innocent again.

Pictures of Innocence Children in 18th Century Portraiture at Abbot Hall Art Gallery Kendal from 12 July to 8 October 2005

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2005

Image 1: Collection National Museum Wales
Image 2: The National Portrait Gallery
Image 3,4&5: Tate Collection

Published in The Independent


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