Grand ma

24th October 2003 at 01:00
Eleri Evans explores a lush 18th-century portrait

Joshua Reynolds 1723-92

First president of the Royal Academy on its foundation in 1768, Reynolds had quickly become the leading portraitist of the day, starting in his native Devon even before his apprenticeship was ended. By 1758 he had 150 sitters a year and even on the day he was knighted in 1769 he managed to fit in sittings for two clients. Blindness ended his career in 1790.

This elegant and sumptuous family portrait (at the National Museum and Galley, Cardiff) immediately invites the viewer to engage in some form of conversation with the past. Who are these people? Is she the mother? What are the children doing?

Family portraiture became more popular during the 1700s. The image of the mother was important. Even the most aristocratic women discovered the joys of at least posing as good mothers. Here we see Charlotte Grenville enjoying the company of her three eldest children. She does not read the book but gazes lovingly at them.

Portraits in general during the 18th century were not concerned merely to convey a likeness. Artists often aimed at giving their portraits a greater sense of importance by including a historical or mythological slant, making reference to other works of art or the ancient past. In this work, Sir Joshua Reynolds included classical elements such as urns and columns, and based Lady Charlotte's pose on pastel portraits of ladies in Turkish dress by Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-89), as well as works by Michaelangelo, Raphael and Titian.

Sir Joshua Reynolds travelled to Rome and Venice where many of his artistic ideas were established. He admired the colours of the Venetian painter Titian and thought that historic paintings were important. He often aimed to give his portraits a greater sense of importance by referring back to history. On his return to London he became widely known as a portrait painter of children.

Charlotte Grenville was the second wife of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. Sir Watkin was one of the greatest landowners in 18th-century Wales. He owned land in Denbighshire, Montgomeryshire and Meirioneth. He was five months old when his father died and he became the 4th Baronet of Wynnstay. By the late 1760s, through his royalties on coal, lead, tin and copper, his income was about pound;20,000 a year (pound;1.25-1.5 million in today's money).

He spent excessively on building projects, on art, drama and music and was Wales's most important patron of the arts of his time.

There are many other art works relating to him and his family in the museum's collection. Watkin the eldest child is about six years old here, Fanny is about five and Charles is about three. The children are playing and are not at all stiff.

Attitudes towards children and childhood, which became valued as a time of innocence, changed during the 18th century and art reflected this. There was a move away from formallooking portrayals to showing animated, lively individuals with their parents.

Eighteenth-century fashion for things Turkish is noticeable in Charlotte's ermine-lined overgown and plunging v-shaped neckline, echoed in the plump cushion and oriental carpet. Turkey had just opened to western travellers, who had long been intrigued by the secret and, above all, exotic court in Constantinople. Turkish details in paintings were often fifth-hand, as artists copied others with more fashionable sitters.

Reynolds's famous technique dominates the picture. Rich colours, intimate scale and different textures create an effect sumptuous and grand. Fabrics shimmer and move. The technique called "fat over lean" has been used: dark oil colours were thinned with turpentine, then when these thin layers had dried, brighter tones were applied more thickly and mixed on the canvas while still wet.

This painting provides many starting points for activities within art lessons, as well as cross-curricular work including the history and language curriculum. The children here are believed to be between three and six years old. This fact alone provides a way in when looking at the work with key stage 1 pupils. Ask your pupils to talk about the children, their clothes, the surroundings and their actions. This can lead on to a comparison with aspects of the pupils' own lives today.

Studying historical paintings such as this can give pupils of all ages the opportunity to explore the past and to question what it is they are looking at. It can also provide them with the inspiration to make their own work.

By engaging with works of art such as this, pupils are allowing the past to influence the present.

Eleri Evans is art education officer at the National Museum and Gallery of Wales, Cardif

Lesson ideas

Help your pupils by asking questions. Is this a family group? Is it a natural pose or one specially set up for the painting? Who commissioned the work? Did the wife want it painted so she could be seen as a caring and loving mother? Did the husband want to show off his fashionable wife and beautiful children? What can we learn about these children from looking at this painting? Do the poses give us information about the relationship of the sitters to each other? What is the contribution of colour, texture or even scale to the overall impact of the work?

Key stages 12 art

Ask pupils to collect photographs of themselves with various family members. Discuss the photographs - the pose, the clothes and the surroundings. As homework, ask the children to make some drawings of their family. Pupils can use the information from their drawings and in the photographs to plan their own paintings. Ask them to think about the message they want to give others who may look at their painting.


Ask pupils to compare their clothes with the costumes of the children in the painting. Do these children's clothes look like those that adults might wear? Ask pupils to find paintings of children looking like little adults.

Ask them to design their own clothes for children.

KS34: how have different painting techniques been used to capture the effects of different textured fabrics? Give your pupils a range of differently textured fabrics. Ask them to experiment with a range of media, working to capture different effects.

Pupils can look at the picture as a starting point to exploring depictions of children, in both a historical and contemporary context. Find examples of sculpture, paintings and photographs of children from different times and countries. Compare the different images. Ask pupils to consider the message that their work will express.

National Museum amp; Gallery, Cardiff souvenir guide pound;1

Tel: 029 2057 3477

Image and information:

Education enquiries and school visitsTel: 029 2057 3240

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