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Brush with time

Nursery children put on 18th-century clothes in a Lake District art gallery to recreate a family portrait. Kevin Berry reports

Somewhere in Kendal's Abbot Hall Art Gallery is a huge painting of a Georgian family at play. It is the Gower family, painted by George Romney, and is considered a masterpiece. A group of three and four-year-olds from Bobbins Day Nursery have been asked to find it.

"Look," says Lewis Bowness. "There's the picture we're looking for."

The children are delighted. Cherrie Trelogan, the deputy director of the galley, settles them in front of the picture. The Gower children are dancing, but they have only a tambourine. Can the Bobbins Nursery children play a game with a tambourine? There are many suggestions, and Ring a ring of roses is settled on.

"How did they get that in here?" asks Lewis. He has noticed how low the doors are. Cherrie explains and everyone listens. Cherrie feels that if children are used to coming to the gallery from the age of three then any gallery will be a comfortable place. They will not be afraid to ask questions. She is constantly amazed at how much children will take in.

"A lot of people think that a three to five-year-old wouldn't be interested in an 18th-century painting," says Cherrie. "But these children live in a visual world. They're not reading and writing yet, so what's the difference between a painting with a gold frame and the picture books they are looking at? We always use the real thing. Knowing that George Romney's brush actually made that painting - that's something you can't replace."

Cherrie has, with two advisory teachers, developed educational activities around many of the pieces of art at Abbot Hall. She once borrowed a Picasso sculpture of a cockerel from the Tate Gallery and on another occasion some real hens from the milkman.

"The Tate people were horrified. But I said: 'Don't worry, the hens are in a different room'. "

Today's visitors follow Cherrie to the workshop room. Activities are set out and gentle period music is playing.

A huge picture frame stands ready for children to pose in. They can dress like the Gower family and they can arrange a background using soft building blocks and screens with garden views.

Foot shapes are stuck on the floor, like diagrams in a dance instruction manual. A booth is ready with everything needed to make dance tickets and there is a cash register to take the money. A model art gallery is waiting.

It has a selection of pictures with cardboard frames to slip them into, and there is high-quality model furniture. Tiny figures are waiting to go into the gallery.

An enormous roll of paper is taped to the floor waiting to be painted on, and there is material for making puppets. The available paints and material colours are close to the colours used by Romney.

When the puppets are made and ready to be played with there is an overhead projector to create light and shadow. The children are absorbed immediately - no encouragement is needed. They move from one interesting activity to another. This room is exciting and there is plenty of space. It is like a huge artist's studio. Ben Marriott has found a copy of Romney's picture.

"Can we take this back?" he asks. Of course they can.

Before the children leave Abbot Hall they go back to the room where they discovered Mr Romney's picture to reflect on what they have done and say goodbye to the Gower children.

* School visits are free but should be booked to avoid overcrowding. Talks cost pound;15, workshops pound;80. Workshops for three to five-year-olds are free.

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