Bold portrait of the bard

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Twelve-year-old Ishmael Duke, from Barrs Hill School in Coventry, had the excitement of seeing his painting (right) turned into a printed image on the Royal Shakespeare Company's leaflets and posters which publicised the tenth anniversary of their Swan Theatre, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Ishmael won a competition for young people on the theme: "What does the theatre mean to you?", a subject which really appealed to this quiet pupil, whose face warms into a smile as he says he "likes acting" and enjoyed "trying on wigs" during his winner's day backstage at the RSC.

Artist and illustrator Nick Higgins explained what he and his two fellow judges were looking for among the hundred plus entries they scrutinised. "Because the work had to be reproduced on publicity material we wanted a fairly strong image, nothing too fussy and detailed," he said, "but we also wanted to see an original, imaginative approach to the subject. Ishmael's bright, bold head of Shakespeare immediately caught our attention and we felt confident that 'this was the one'."

"The competition fitted marvellously into a project on the Renaissance which we had started in Year 8," explained art teacher Deborah Kearney. "We had been studying Tudor portraits and the lovely bejewelled and embroidered detail on the garments, and I had encouraged the children to paint boldly."

She sees her role as primarily one of stimulating ideas. "I bring masses of materials to a lesson," she says, "and throw lots of different possibilities at the children." Ishmael's painting originated with a tiny, black and white photograph of a Shakespeare portrait in one of the dozens of publicity leaflets she brought into class, but the resulting image was very much his own.

It's an approach that Nick Higgins supports. He feels the best work comes from giving youngsters more confidence to find their own expression.

All the competition entries will be on display at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until the end of June.

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