May 1995

An Interview with Curator James Steward

Q: What got you interested in the subject of childhood in art?

JS: Well, I had been looking at portraits and felt that the "meaning" of portraits in general hadn't been addressed much. Portraits of children were doubly interesting in this way because the pictures were obviously projections of adult ideas and concerns onto the images of children. From the perspective of adult artists and viewers, children had this attractive dual quality--they were both "us" and "the other." And, of course, issues of childhood--what it means, how children are regarded and treated, etc.--are still of great concern to us today.

Q: So why the Georgian period?

JS: I'd started by looking at the nineteenth century, but I came to believe that the eighteenth century was the key--it was more vigorous, more interdisciplinary, the climate was more eclectic. There weren't so many academies or the kind of occupational segregation you see later. Artists, writers, and intellectuals would gather in coffeehouses and have passionate discussions about art and ideas, politics, all sorts of things. And it was a time when so much was changing: the rise of industrialization, relationships to the land, and notions of individuality.

When I first began investigating images of childhood, I was looking at both British and French art. After a while though, I became convinced that the real innovation took place in Britain in the generation of William Hogarth [1697-1764]. I started with the visual and then also surveyed period writings on children, just trying to get to the heart of why these pictures look the way they do.

Q: What struck you when you first looked at these works of art?

JS: The first thing was the sheer number of images. There are literally thousands of paintings, drawings, prints, and book illustrations depicting children in key roles. And there is the variety of ways children were imagined. For pretty much the first time children were allowed to be children. The traditional hierarchy, where adults were foremost and children were relegated to minor roles, was being broken down.

Part of the attraction of this subject is that this interest in depicting children takes place on different levels. Owning or commissioning paintings was still the province of aristocrats and some wealthier merchants, but different media such as printmaking and children's illustrated books disseminated images to less privileged classes. Books aimed at children were truly an eighteenth-century invention, a product of a new and different conception of how to educate and amuse children.

Q: Why do you think this new way of looking at children took place in Great Britain at this particular time?

JS: One important factor was that the aristocracy was losing its hold on "culture." A lot of changes occurred at least in part due to an aristocratic crisis of confidence. The impetus for these changes was coming from the rise or expansion of what we would call "the middle class," or perhaps more accurately "the merchant class." And when it comes to images of children you can see the middle class's more intimate concept of family coming to the fore.

We get a taste of this in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, with its seemingly realistic depictions of children and middle-class life in general. Still, most Dutch pictures of children are largely emblematic. There is realistic observation of how children look, but they are almost always depicted with a symbolic overlay--used to represent "domesticity" or "virtue" or the like.

Also, the Georgian monarchs were more populist than their counterparts in France or Italy. They had brought German values with them, they were a surprisingly bourgeois kind of monarch. And they both responded to and encouraged a public fascination with family life. George III, who was installed in 1760, had 14 children and deliberately fostered an identification of the monarch as parental figure (as you can see in the wonderful filmThe Madness of King George III). With the rise of parliamentary power, and in light of the aristocratic crisis of identity, the cult of the "family" gave the royal family a whole new raison d'être as national role models of exemplary domestic life.

And then another factor was the growing confidence of a native school of British art. British artists were gaining greater visibility and taking a central role within the cultural milieu. In the second half of the eighteenth century there's an expanded and more formal system of art training and patronage, a greater involvement of artists in social issues, and a higher status for the profession as a whole. Reynolds's knighthood was a significant recognition of this rise in stature.

Q: So, what do these images of children have to tell us?

JS: They're all part of the movement of "childhood." Most parents had probably always loved their children, been concerned with protecting them, tried to raise them correctly. What was new in the eighteenth century was the "construct" of childhood, a system of concepts and ideas about what childhood is, and one very recognizable to us now. The words "modern childhood" in the exhibition title reflect how much our modern sense of the nature of childhood was put together in this period. Both visually and socially, the mid-eighteenth century really can be seen as the birth of modern history.

Moreover, the construction of the idea of "childhood" is really part of the cult of the individual that was evolving during this century. Childhood was seen as the training ground for adulthood, and how an individual was formed during childhood became a matter of intense discussion and importance. We see shifts in public opinion over the hundred-year period toward seeing children as individuals, with seemingly contradictory emphasis on both the autonomy of and adult control over children.

Where this exhibition breaks new ground is in its examination of the social history of these pretty familiar works, but, of course, we aren't just looking at them as examples of social change. The New Child works on multiple levels, and on the purely visual level these are great works of art that have traditionally been undervalued. I think the show champions British art by looking at it in a multi-disciplinary light, exploring its relationship to ideas.

British art has long been seen as conservative, certainly in relation to French art. The show demands that we look at British painting on its own terms. For example, it insists that we look at the key role of British painting in the rise of Romanticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it's rarely thought of in this way. It's a different circle of influence. In a way, I think the exhibition works as a paradigm for looking at British painting.

Q: So, on a purely visual level, what are your favorite works in the exhibition?

JS: Well, Reynolds'sMaster Hare from the Louvre and his Cupid as Link Boy from the Albright-Knox are very beautiful and sensitive responses to painting an individual child. And Thomas Lawrence is an exquisite painter--Charles William Lambton is a perfect example of his work. I love the [William] Blakes too, the Songs of Innocence and Experience are quite remarkable in their integration of text and image. Blake's movement, in just a few years, from visually and verbally extolling the glories of childhood to a more pitying and pessimistic view of the position of children is both sad and attuned to what was really happening to many children in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Q: Perhaps you could comment on the different sections of the exhibition.

JS: The first section, The Age of Innocence, shows children alone or with other children. In these pictures we see that children are now allowed to exist on their own. There's also a movement from more formal to more relaxed and dynamic ways of portraying children. The next section shows children inserted in a family setting and it's called The Georgian Family and the Parental Role. There are a number of pictures of mothers and their children, some obviously using the Madonna-and-Child as a template. Pictures of fathers and their children took a lot longer to find, but they are among the most interesting. Previously, the father was the central figure in the family portrait, representing his central position in the family. Now we start to see pictures where the father is peripheralized, and it is the children who become ever more the focus of family portraits.

Childbirth and Nursing looks at early childhood development and especially at the practice of wet nursing which was a matter of lively debate in the eighteenth century. We see the extent of the debate in a number of satirical prints that were obviously aimed at a broader audience than the one for paintings. One eighteenth-century discovery was the idea that child's play could be a legitimate form of education. In Child's Play, Toys, and Recreation we see how that concept plays off against the notion of childhood per se, that seeing "play" as an attribute of children was part of allowing the idea of "childhood" to exist. Following this is The Child Learns: Academic, Religious, and Moral Training which has images of the classroom that range from a painting of the royal princes with their tutor to an engraved primer for teaching English to "Mohawk Children" in America.

The central discussion in Children and Charity: The Double-Edged Didactic Sword points to the transition between the feudal state and the modern state. The question of how we deal with the poor or care for the disenfranchised focused a great deal on children, partially because then as now they were most "at risk," and conversely because childhood was also considered the moral training ground for developing virtues such as charity. The seventh section, Children, Class, and Countryside, contains depictions of children from the lower-classes and of child labor--very unusual subjects for this period--and indicates something of the ways artists depicted different classes differently.

Another factor in the changing attitudes toward children in the eighteenth century was the rise of the cult of "sensibility." It placed a moral value on heightened emotions (and displaying them was "a good thing") and much of the cult was centered on children. In The Family and Sentiment I've selected didactic pictures in which the emotional response of "sensibility" is used to promote good parenting: for example, angelic children being shown as one of the rewards of leading a virtuous life.

The final section, When Children Aren't Children, shows artists going back and forth on the question of the "otherness" of children. The idea that children escaped the boundaries of the adult world was a basic tenet of the new construct of childhood, and it was an idea that was both liberating and alarming. Some of the most intriguing images in the show address artists' and society's insecurity about the new role of children. These works both comment on childhood and attempt to control the idea of childhood. Reynolds's Master Crewe as Henry VIII and his Cupid as Link Boy, both benefit from being "decoded" for a modern audience to reveal their respective satiric and sexual connotations, but they are also explicitly projections of childhood under the control of adults.

Q. The questions of how we represent children visually or deal with a child's sexuality are among the issues in The New Child that we still wrestle with today. I know part of the rationale behind the concurrent We Look and See exhibition of contemporary photography is to highlight the parallels and continuities between modern issues and those of 150 years ago.

JS: The adjunct exhibition does raise similar questions, not only about children as sexual beings and our discomfort with this, but also about our society's concerns about the welfare of children: both the rhetoric and the reality. The images in the two shows also address the idea of how children are indoctrinated into various value systems, and they comment sometimes ambiguously on the role of parents. They also point out the artificiality of what "childhood" is. There's nothing natural or automatic about our construct of childhood, and one of the most fascinating things about The New Child is the chance to look back at the wonderful art of the Georgian period and see our modern sense of what it is to be a child being formed.

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