The National Portrait Gallery lays on history workshops for schools. But don't worry if you can't get to them. One way or another, they will get to you, as Sean Lang discovered. The National Portrait Gallery was the brainchild of the 19th-century Earl of Stanhope. The idea was that gazing on the faces of the heroes of English history would leave the Victorian public feeling uplifted and determined to be a better, worthier public. There was a furious debate about who should or should not be included in its collection: kings and queens were all right, but should people be emulating Judge Jeffreys?
Even then there were criticisms that the selection reflected a rather stuffy view of history, and this was echoed in a recent open letter in the Independent, which complained that the gallery's organising principles place more emphasis on long-forgotten sitters than on reflecting the art of the portraitist.
From the artistic point of view, there may be something in this, but from the point of view of the history teacher, it is this that gives the gallery much of its value, and which has enabled it to develop as one of the most enterprising education centres in the capital. Hundreds of children have come to the gallery's popular history workshops to don historical costume and learn about the periods which spawned the people in the walls around them.
So popular have the workshops proved, that the education centre has recently been expanded with the building of the new Clore Studio. Perhaps conscious of artists' complaints, the workshops here look both at how historians use portraits and at how the artist puts a portrait together in the first place.
So pupils learn how Tudor portraitists made copies of their work - so important for effective propaganda. Inevitably, the workshops are tailored directly for the national curriculum, with history sessions on study units like Tudors and Stuarts or the Making of the United Kingdom, alongside more detailed study sessions for teachers and A level students.
Even with expanded facilities, however, the gallery's courses are heavily oversubscribed. Their answer to this is to provide teachers in the classroom with high-quality resource packs, based upon popular workshop themes, along with good comprehensive briefing notes and ideas for activities. It can never take the place of a visit to the gallery, of course, but it saves the train fare.
A lot of planning has gone into these resources. The gallery's sales and marketing manager, Louise Hearnden, cheerfully confesses to having sat at the back of many of the workshops on the scrounge for ideas, and she has picked up some good ones.
The simplest packs are straightforward postcard sets with notes on popular themes, like the Civil War or the Elizabethans. These only contain one copy of each card, but they are cheap enough to consider buying a class set.
Next come three poster sets, again on popular themes, which come with more comprehensive teaching notes and ideas for using them in class.
The star turn, however, is a series of fuller resource packs, the first of which focusses on Holbein in England: the Family Group Portraits of Thomas More and Henry VIII. This is excellent. The notes are comprehensive enough to carry a lesson from infants to A level, with ideas for history and art work, as well as versions of the pictures designed for classroom use. Holbein's famous drawings of the More family circle are photocopiable, while the group portraits feature in the pack either as a half-class set of postcards (two sets of 10 each) or two slides. This looks a bit thin in the plastic packing until you realise how much you can milk out of them: my students were enthralled.
The key to success lies in getting the children to open their eyes and observe the portraits closely. The notes help the teacher, and therefore the children, to see the repositioning that went on between the drawing of the More family group and the finished painting, or in the little Tudor motifs in Holbein's famous cartoon of the dynasty.
It is important to notice small points like legs or eyebrows out of proportion, the intricate decoration in the background, or the chain round Henry VII's neck - they are all there for a purpose.
You can superimpose Jane Seymour's cartoon onto her finished portrait (an exact fit), or try copying pictures the Tudor way by pricking holes along the lines and dusting the picture with powdered ink.
The overall effect is extremely impressive: the pictures themselves are beautifully reproduced, but their real value lies as classroom tools, not as decorations for the wall.
There are new packs in the pipeline on the Elizabethans, a slide pack on 20th century portraiture (which brings in the various tricks of the photographer's art) and on the phenomenon of self-portraiture, a guide to using portraits, Famous Faces, by Clare Gittings, the gallery's education officer, as well as an activity magazine for children.
If you can't get to it, then the gallery, with all its scholarship and expertise, will come to you.
GALLERY WORKSHOPS AND MATERIALS
Key Stages 2 and 3 Study Sessions available on the Early Tudors, the Elizabethans, the Stuarts and Victorian Imperialism; role plays on Henry VIII and the Battle of Edgehill; and gallery visits and slide talks on the Making of the United Kingdom. Visits can be tailored to your school's needs. All free of charge.
A Level Tudor Portraiture on November17 and 24, December 1, 6 and 8; Art and Power 1603-1658 on January 31, February 2, February 7 1995; Portraits, Caricature and History Painting as Historical Evidence on March 14, 15 and 16. All are free of charge. Poster Packs The Early Tudors, The Elizabethans, The Early Victorians Pounds 12.95 each. Postcard Packs Stuart Kings and Queens, The Civil War, Eminent Victorians Pounds 3.50 each; Tudor Kings and Queens Pounds 3.95. Teachers' Resource Packs Holbein in England: the Family Group Portraits of Thomas More and Henry VIII Pounds 9.95 Slide Packs Self Portraits 12 x 35mm slides Pounds 9.95; Twentieth Century Portraits 12 x 35mm slides Pounds 9.95. Famous Faces by Clare Gittings Pounds 3.99. Activity magazine for children Look This Way! 99p. National Portrait Gallery Education Department, St Martin's Place, London WC2H 0HE, (071-306 0055, ext. 212)