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Pretty as a picture

Sarah French listens in as primary pupils in Newcastle discover their art appreciation skills

Asking a group of six and seven-year-olds to interpret a 17th century portrait of a nobleman admiring a statuette seems, on the face of it, an impossible task. But encourage them to think about who he might be, coax an answer to the question of where he may live and the children start to imagine.

"He's a rich man."

"How do you know that?"

"Because he has nice clothes."

"He lives in a big house."

"I bet he has servants who choose what he wears."

"And horses. I bet he goes out in a carriage."

Suddenly a beautiful but apparently child-unfriendly painting becomes as alive as the chatter among the children, Year 2 pupils from St Joseph's Primary School in Newcastle. Most have never been to a gallery before, never mind seen an original piece of art.

Yet within minutes of their trip to the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University, they are becoming little art critics. This early exercise with the portrait, other paintings and photographs of sculptures teaches them to interpret what they see within their own six-year-old understanding of the world.

They have come to the gallery to see Strange Cargo, an exhibition that has helped introduce art to different groups. It started with artists Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio working with teenagers to produce a comic strip book for secondary schools.

Jean Taylor, the gallery's education officer, says: "We deliberately targeted young people from the more deprived areas of the city. We wanted to make the point that you don't have to be posh to go into an art gallery, that they're here for everyone."

They were introduced to pieces of work from the permanent collection and asked to choose those from which they could draw meaning.

In group discussions, thoughts developed around the stories behind the pictures. The result was Grennan and Sperandio's compilation of comic strip stories based on the young people's ideas and with many of them transformed into characters. The book formed the basis of an education pack with a CD of images and suggestions of classroom topics for teachers.

The project also led to an exhibition using the work from the collection juxtaposed with life-size images of the young people to form vast murals hung in the main gallery space. The third strand of the project was to invite primary schools such as St Joseph's into the gallery to think about the work and to produce their own comic strip book.

As the morning continued, the children's confidence grew. "They were fascinated by the physicality of the paintings," says Jean. "The pieces were bigger than they expected and they were amazed at the textures.

They're used to looking at pictures that are flat and smooth so they were intrigued by the surface of oil paintings. They wanted to know how it was applied and how the paint was made."

The children then set to work drawing figures from the pieces of art using oil pastels and filling in their own backgrounds to create a story.

Jean, a secondary art teacher for 23 years, established the Hatton Gallery's education programme when she joined six years ago. School visits and the practical work the children do are always based on a current exhibition, with a new one arriving every eight weeks or so.

"For the children it's exciting and different from the classroom experience, and we can help teachers who aren't always confident, especially about modern art," she says.

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