Painting Childhood, Compton Verney, review: from works of genius to downright failures

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The Five Eldest Children of Charles I by Van Dyck (1637)
The Five Eldest Children of Charles I by Van Dyck (1637) Credit: THE ROYAL COLLECTION

Does the experience of childhood change over the centuries, or do the agonies and ecstasies of bringing up children – for both parent and child – remain essentially the same? This exhibition, promising some of the “most iconic” paintings of children from the past 500 years, begins with a tiny drawing that very much supports the latter view.

The subject of Study of a Child Trying on a Cap by the Italian artist Domenichino wears a cheeky little smile as he puts on the unfamiliar headgear, an expression we all know, to be closely followed, no doubt, by a howling tantrum. The drawing was done in 1600, but we’ve all known this child – many of us have been them.

From there on, however, the exhibition tells a very different story, and not least because painting, certainly of the old master type, is so intricate, time-consuming and expensive, people have tended not to embark on paintings of children – much less commission them – without a serious alternative agenda, be it political, symbolic or the discharging of some personal obligation.

The future Charles II looks every inch the mini-potentate in Van Dyck’s sumptuous The Five Eldest Children of Charles I (1637), superbly confident in a pink satin suit, his arm around a gigantic mastiff, in an image that is more about dynastic power than recording what the children looked like. It’s hard to believe Charles was only seven at the time.

Victoria, Princess Royal, with Eos by Sir Edwin Landseer (1841) Credit: THE ROYAL COLLECTION

William Hogarth’s The Graham Children (1742) looks like an informal celebration of 18th-century children at play, but the youngest died before the painting was completed, turning this lively image into a tragic memorial.

Sir John Everett Millais’s Bubbles (1886) gives the impression of drawing us into a little boy’s thoughts as his big, blue eyes follow a floating bubble, an age old symbol of fleeting time and innocence. Yet the boy, you feel, is representing not so much himself as a grossly sentimentalised Victorian view of childhood. And so it goes on.

Artists turn to children as subjects, the show argues, at critical junctures in their own lives. So, Winifred Nicholson’s delightful The Artist’s Children at the Isle of Wight (1931) is actually, we are told, about her husband, the artist Ben Nicholson, running off with Barbara Hepworth.

On this showing, artists seem only interested in children as mirrors for their own preoccupations, which tends to be the artist’s approach to whatever they paint. But in our own time, when so much more importance is attached to the child’s view, when children’s play and creativity are seen not as mere “childishness”, but as significant steps in their development, you’d think that children would feel more present in art in their own right.

In the companion exhibition, Childhood Now, three contemporary British painters give their views.

Chantal Joffe, the best known, paints big, gleefully messy images of herself and her daughter Esme slobbing about in their London home. Mark Fairnington’s hyperreal images of his red-headed twin sons have an eerie 21st century Pre-Raphaelite quality, while Matthew Krishanu’s dreamlike paintings look wistfully back to his childhood in Bangladesh.

 Lee and Jason by Mark Fairnington (2011)

The Holbein and Lucian Freud works referred to in the full title of the exhibition (Painting Childhood: from Holbein to Freud), are respectively, a drawing and a small painting – neither among these artists’ greatest works. While there are some terrific paintings here by Constable, Gainsborough, Murillo, Stanley Spencer and many more, the show doesn’t make the best advert for painting as a means of “capturing the fleeting moments of youth”, to use its own phrase. It hurts me to say it, but unless you actually are a genius at painting, you’re probably better off using a camera.