Most major art exhibitions can be found hanging inside the hallowed walls of two or three of the capital cities leading art galleries. As an art lover, for me, this can mean a lot of travelling into London with all the expenses that can incur, an expensive train ticket, long queues at the gallery and a hefty admission ticket. It has in the past put me off visiting some exhibitions, which I would usually have taken the time out to view.
So, it was with much delight that I discovered that Compton Verney Art Gallery & Park, an 18th-century country mansion, less than thirty minutes away from my home had stirred from its winter hibernation and was showing two stunning exhibitions, skilfully linked by the theme of childhood.
Painting Childhood: From Holbein to Freud is a celebration of some of the most famous paintings of children produced over the past 500 years. The exhibition boasts an abundance of masterpieces by artists such as Jan Steen, Judith Leyster, Johan Zoffany, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. The exhibition addresses themes including royal portraits, play and learning, and the fantasy and reality of children’s lives.
Her Majesty the Queen has loaned a rare and superb collection of works depicting royal children including rarely seen sketches drawn by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The collection of etchings and sketches by the royal couple provide a unique glimpse of Royal family life.
Van Dycks masterful painting of “The five eldest children of Charles I (1637) one of the largest paintings in the exhibition acknowledges the youth and status of its royal subjects but breaks with the tradition of presenting the royal children as miniature adults. The eldest son is seen stroking a huge dog in the centre of the painting whilst two of the youngest children present an everyday uncultured domestic scene. Another of the children stares directly forward and another unconcerned towards her brother showing the perfect indifference of childhood.
I spent a lot of time looking at a stunning bracelet which consisted of nine miniature portraits. The bracelet had been commissioned by Prince Albert for his wife, Queen Victoria, which showed a portrait of each of their nine children, four boys and five girls born between 1840 and 1857, at the age of four. The artistry was simply breath taking!
The formal dynastic royal paintings gave way to the romanticism of Victorian art demonstrated by the portrait of the young Prince of Wales made in 1846. Bertie, as he was known to his family was heir to the throne and is pictured as a carefree four year old with curly hair and a sailor suit beside a blue sea.
Another group of paintings presented children as strawberry sellers or beggar boys. This type of painting was known as ` fancy` pictures. Rather than put poor working country folk anonymously lost in a rural landscape, Jules – Bastien -Lepage draws attention to their dress and individual nature. In “Nothing Doing” he paints the boy in ragged clothes with oversized boots gazing freely back out at the viewer.
This could be contrasted with Lucian Freud`s portrait of his daughter `Annabelle` and the angelic Bubbles by John Everett Millais, an image made famous by its use for the Pears Soap advertising. Originally titled “A Child`s World” this was a portrait of the artists grandson. The image of the bubbles represents the fleeting, fragile nature of youth. A & F Pears added a bar of soap and their logo making it a very successful and productive image for many years.
It concludes with a series of paintings, sketches and sculptures of other artists own children, by some of the giants of 20th century art including one of my favourite artists Sir Stanley Spencer alongside Louise Bourgeois, Jacob Epstein and Lucian Freud.
Continuing the theme of childhood introduced in Painting Childhood, the exploration continues in a paired exhibition, Childhood Now, bringing together the works of three contemporary figurative painters – Chantal Joffe, Mark Fairnington and Matthew Krishanu. The three London based figurative artists all capture the essence of modern childhood, but in a very different way!
Chantal Joffe’s expressive paintings chart the growth of her daughter Esme from birth to adolescence, in relation to her own changing role as a mother. She has repeatedly drawn inspiration from her daughter Esme, who was born in 2004. For the first time Joffe`s lively and tender representations of childhood are being shown here together alongside a new portrait created in response to this exhibition. Here Esme dominates the canvas as she reclines back on the sofa in her school uniform, child, adolescent and young woman. Large areas of colour placed on the canvas with huge rapid brushstrokes helping to add vitality and personality.
Mark Fairnington’s approach turns a scientific eye to the depiction of his identical twin sons with hyper-realistic precision, photographic like. Here he records the boys differences but also highlights their similarities. Mark developed this fine detailed technique while painting specimens of insects. He would use multiple photographs to generate images with detailed and complex surfaces.
Looking back on his own childhood, Matthew Krishanu’s radiant paintings reveal memories of an exotic childhood in Bangladesh, growing up alongside his older brother. His work captures the gaze of childhood. Born in Bradford but living in Bangladesh from the age of one until he was twelve years old, I could feel the light and heat of the country in his paintings.
Luminously colourful, each of the paintings tell a story, a different story to each viewer. In “ Safari” are Matthew and his older brother Richard being told off by the man with his hands in his pockets?
Together all three artists combine to reveal a contemporary interpretation of childhood on what constitutes childhood now.
Green Dwelling by Dutch artist Krijn de Koning is a collection of twenty – four blocks spread across the Old Town Meadow. The blocks represent the history of the land, once the site of the medieval village of Compton Murdak. The meadow which had been planted with elm trees during the 18th century saw them lost due to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.
“Generally, the work relates to three aspects of Compton Verney, “ says de Koning “ One, the gallery and the collection, as the blocks are outdoor sculptures/artwork. Two, the park, as the colour, form and arrangement refer to the bridges, trees and plants. Three, the architecture, as the blocks and their placement refer to the basic forms of construction, bricks, paths and walls”
Described by one visitor as a modern Stonehenge, the installation disappointed this visitor. I thought the blocks looked lost in the vast park landscape of Compton Verney. The blocks needed to have been three of four times larger to create a huge visual impact. The positioning of the blocks did not immediately confer any relationship with the park or its past history!
Compton Verney fully opened to the public as a major, nationally accredited art gallery in March 2004. The Moores family, of Littlewoods Pools fame have put heart and soul into this exceptional gallery on the Warwickshire and Oxfordshire borders.
Compton Verney houses six permanent collections, focusing on areas currently under-represented in British museums and galleries. The collections are owned by the Compton Verney Collections Settlement. Their special exhibitions programme offers a range of historic and contemporary art shows which appeals to a wide audience.
The house is set in 120 acres of Grade II listed classical parkland, designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the most eminent landscape architect of the eighteenth-century. Restoration of the parkland continues today with an extensive replanting and maintenance programme, designed to enhance Brown’s grassland, planting, ornamental lake, chapel – and the Cedars of Lebanon for which Brown is famous.
I would fully recommend a visit to two new exhibitions at the gallery. I appreciated the brilliant pairing of these perfectly curated collections of such world class works of art. Classic masterpieces alongside important vibrant contemporary artists. The theme of childhood has been fully explored with paintings, sketches and etchings presenting a wide ranging interpretation of past and modern childhood and how this has been decoded by the world of art.
Showing until Sun 16 June, 5.00pm
01926 645 500