Drawn to Diana

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
Tens of thousands of children picked up pencils and crayons to express their feelings at the death of a princess last summer. The picture that emerged supports the theory that artistic style and ability have more to do with nurture than nature, writes Jane Norrie.

The amazing public response to the death of Diana will no doubt occupy cultural critics for some time to come. But perhaps one of the least expected aspects of the phenomenon was the way that even young children took part. Among the welter of tributes to the princess were thousands of flowers, drawings, poems and toys from young admirers.

For teacher and art educator Elsbeth Court, the children's art had a special resonance. In her view, their carefully made drawings were not only poignant and affecting in themselves but also demonstrated the development of drawing in young children.

How do children begin to draw? What do their drawings mean? How are they influenced by what they see and hear around them? The drawings made for Diana, Court believes, could have a bearing on questions like these.

Post-war theories of child development have tended to the view that the ability to draw is part of a child's biological make-up. Even the very young, the idea goes, are programmed to like certain basic shapes such as circles or ovals. So, when a toddler starts to draw, he or she will make a basic "tadpole-shaped" form; as he or she grows up, arms and legs will be added until something like a conventional human figure is arrived at - probably by the time they are five or six.

According to this theory, environmental factors such as home, school or peer pressure, will have only a small influence on what and how children draw.

Elsbeth Court's own experience has led her to believe that cultural and environmental factors play a much larger part than has hitherto been recognised. Now lecturing on African Art History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University, she spent many years in eastern Africa, first teaching African history, then primary art, and latterly acting as an adviser to Kenya's ministry of education. During that time she undertook research into drawing; her work with Kenyan children convinced her that paramount in their drawings was a marked environmental and social influence.

Given a free choice of subject matter, for instance, children from a pastoral community opted not to draw humans at all. Their preference was for cows with humps. For them, the cow is a symbol of wealth and beauty. Since its hump enables it to live through a drought, at a fundamental symbolic level the cow may be even more significant as a symbol of the culture's survival. A drawing in Court's collection of a homestead by a Samburu boy puts the herd of cows in a central position, with the warrior-herders to the side. The cattle are individualised to an extraordinary degree as they engage in a whole variety of activities and attitudes.

On the other hand, children from a farming community, who also weave baskets, drew houses that were gridded and cross-hatched. Children from a fishing community represented the body by means of a head and legs - a schematic formula which was derived from the portrait decorations on their boats.

Findings like these, maintains Court, bear out similar research with pre-school Aboriginal children. Their drawings are symbolic rather than literal, with human beings represented by horse-shoe shapes. Once they are in school, the same children may produce drawings which echo both Western and Aboriginal modes of expression.

So what has all this to do with the drawings British children presented to Diana? An American by birth, Court was greatly moved by the reaction to Diana's death, seeing a surprising parallel between the heaped flowers and tributes and the way people add to shrines in West Africa. "People wanted to participate in one of society's defining moments and they wanted their children to be part of it. St James's and Kensington Palaces and Great Ormond Street Hospital were sanctified."

Over two full weekends as well as intermittently through the two weeks before and after the funeral, Court visited the sites of the tributes, taking scores of photographs of the drawings left by children.

Initially it was the way in which the children expressed themselves that fascinated her. "Diana was mostly represented by hearts and flowers, by crowns, angels and fairy-tale princesses, with emphasis put on the blondeness of her hair. Sometimes a Union Jack was included, sometimes the flag of St George. Not only the imagery but the very careful drawing per se made the English-ness of it all unmistakeable. What other culture in the world would have produced a cult along these lines?" Court was also struck by the way much of the drawing was imaginative and symbolic rather than literal, probably produced as a result of the heightened awareness around the events. The accompanying words were often symbolic too: "You're like a candle in the sky. Your light shines on me."

By the second week, however, the imagery had changed. By now, teachers and television as well as parents were mediating children's responses. Many of the children had seen the funeral on television and evidently talked about it at school. Some schools seem to have taken groups to add their own tributes to the Diana shrines. As a result, the later drawings have a more narrative feel to them, with a more formal presentation. Many show the coffin being carried along and have an almost TV-documentary type of text: "I saw the soldiers. They walked with the horses. They went to the big church."

This change from a symbolic codification to a reportage style reinforces Court's view that "children have access to a repertoire of modes of drawing from which they can choose, depending on whether they are in an expressive or a narrative context."

Biology, culture or, indeed, individual talent - which has the greatest bearing on children's drawings? In the 1990s, the jury is still out. Many still hold a developmental view. Maureen Cox, professor of psychology at York University, argues that development in drawing is mostly biologically determined and that cultural factors act as a static backdrop. From Court's point of view, the children's Diana drawings demonstrate that "the environ-mentalbiological mix is interactive with specific cultural experiences, creating an ever-changing dynamic".

They draw what they see, as well as what they are.

Elsbeth Court teaches African Art history at SOAS in the department of International Foundation Courses for Overseas Students. Her research in Kenya was sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Further reading: Children's Drawings by Margaret Cox (Penguin, 1992); Drawing Research and Development, edited by David Thistlewood, Sheila Paine and Elsbeth Court (Longman 1992); International Perspectives on Culture and Schooling: A Symposium Proceedings, edited by Elwyn Thomas (Institute of Education, University of London, 1994)

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