Childhood

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Childhood

In this blog series, our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.

From Reynolds's portrait of Miss Jane Bowles at just four years old, to Jan Steen's incredible scene, Celebrating the Birth, explore the theme of Childhood in this week's blog.

Joshua Reynolds, Miss Jane Bowles, c. 1775

Although only three or four years old when she sat for her portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, pink-cheeked Jane Bowles had full say over the choice of artist. Her father invited Reynolds to dinner to see how well he got along with the little girl. According to Reynolds’s nineteenth-century biographer: ‘[she] was placed next to Sir Joshua at the dessert, where he amused her so much with stories and tricks that she thought him the most charming man in the world… The next day she was delighted to be taken to his house, where she sat down with a face full of glee, the expression of which he caught at once and never lost.’

The lively picture that came out of this sitting was frequently copied and engraved in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Miss Bowles, who herself went on to have eleven children, kept the original. It was at her brother’s sale in 1850 that the 4th Marquess of Hertford purchased the painting, today considered one of Reynolds’s most charming and spontaneous images of childhood.

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Jan Steen, Celebrating the Birth, 1664

A somewhat sadder, crueler image of childhood (and parenthood) is presented in Celebrating the Birth. At first glance the painting appears to depict the customary presentation of a newborn to its father during a party held for friends and family. But closer inspection reveals a rather darker narrative. For the father who proudly shows off his child is being mocked by the entire gathering, from the child who makes the two fingered sign of the cuckold behind his back to the various women who roughly demand payment for domestic services.

The telling juxtaposition of the father’s white hair with the long red hair of the young man grinning behind him (a self-portrait of Steen himself) leaves us to deduct that age and self-deluded vanity are at the root of this unfortunate scene. In this respect, Steen’s painting, while satirical and bawdy, makes a moral point about the importance of equal relationships in marriage. By taking a much younger wife, Steen’s father has upset the natural order of things, and now pays the price.

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Attributed to Barthélemy Prieur, Mother and Child, c. 1600

This is an unusual scene to find expressed in an artwork of this quality, depicting the humble and affectionate act of a young mother holding her son whilst he urinates. Barthélemy Prieur was a gifted French sculptor of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, who was influenced by Giambologna and other artists looking at Antique models but who also created charming bronze groups of more pedestrian subjects. This is an outstanding example of one such work, showing the beautifully modelled naked mother crouching down and embracing her young son.

Smooth and sinuous, the texture and outline of the mother contrasts sharply with that of the writhing child and the ruffled folds of his smock. Prieur made a number of these types of statuettes on similar subjects, including a pendant to this one, which depicted a mother teaching her child to walk.

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Limoges, Casket showing children’s games, mid-sixteenth century (one plaque nineteenth century)

The thirteen enamel plaques on this casket show young boys taking part in a range of activities in imitation of adults, including instrument-playing, dancing and horse riding. They took their inspiration from the relief sculpture of Classical Antiquity and this type of imagery would have resonated with parents in mid-sixteenth-century France who hoped for sons with the prized qualities of strength and bravery. Caskets such as this were often given as wedding gifts or to celebrate the birth of a son. The scenes of children are accompanied here by gilt inscriptions concerning fortune and the boldness and courage of youth.

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Sèvres, Vase and cover, c. 1765-70

The painter Boucher and the sculptor Falconet excelled in their charming representations of children, from cherubs to street urchins, with their rounded cheeks and innocent expressions. The scene depicted in the front reserve of this exceptional vase is probably the work of Sèvres painter Charles-Eloi Asselin, who also mastered the depiction of children. It is based on Falconet’s biscuit group ‘The Magic Lantern’, itself modelled after designs by Boucher.

Here, a girl peeps into a magic lantern, a rudimentary projector popular among travelling storytellers. In the mid-eighteenth century this practice was associated with Savoyards, peasants from the Savoy region who traditionally travelled to Paris in the winter months. Savoyards carried out various street trades such as chimneysweeps, and provided entertainment to Parisian children with their dancing marmots, hurdy-gurdies and magic lanterns, elements that appear in a trophy at the back of this vase.

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