At a time when society is so focused on issues of childhood-including new definitions of the family, the ubiquitously termed "family values," and child abuse-we must remind ourselves that childhood and the family have not always been as we know them. Many of the attitudes we hold concerning children and their special importance and needs were inconceivable only 300 years ago. Prior to the eighteenth century, for example, the concept of childhood development was unheard of. Children then, while loved by their families, were viewed as little more than small, vulnerable adults.
The roots of many contemporary attitudes surrounding children can be found in Georgian Britain. This period (1714 to 1837, named for the first four King Georges) stands out as one of tremendous change, as society reorganized itself in ways that we have come to define as modern: the advent of industrial economies; increasing emphasis on domestic life; the cult of individuality. Nowhere is this change more evident than in family relationships, as the family came to be based for the first time on bonds of affection rather than economics. The child, once at the periphery, moved to the center of family affections.
While there is much evidence that parents have always prized their children, Georgian Britain led the way in Europe to viewing childhood as a special phase of human existence. Artists themselves participated in this movement as both recorders of contemporary values and as activists promoting change. Wider audiences come dramatically into play as well. The century saw the advent of the first opportunities in Britain for the public display of art (such as the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768) and the widespread popularity of inexpensive prints and illustrated books created expressly for children. Collectively, these works of art played public and private roles central to the creation of a new view of the child.
The exhibition, with selected images and introductions, is offered in 9 sections. For your study and enjoyment, the images are available in two sizes. To see an image in larger scale, click on it.
The tour asks questions to begin discussion of the artworks and defines certain art terms for young people.
of the 18th Century, with links to source material.
in conjunction with the Exhibition.
All images in this online exhibition are copyrighted by the person or institution indicated in the image credit, unless otherwise indicated. Image at top: Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797, The Wood Children, 1789, Oil on canvas, 66 x 53 in. (167.6 x 134.6 cm), Derby Museums and Art Gallery.