Child's Play, Toys, and Recreation

The New Child: British Art and the Origins of Modern Childhood
An exhibition at the University Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, UC Berkeley
August 23 - November 19, 1995

The educational value of play seems to be a peculiarly modern notion. Traditional eighteenth-century parents generally insisted that play, along with affectionate behavior, be abandoned at the onset of the "age of reason"-as early as age seven. Such attitudes derived from the heritage of English Calvinism, and found voice in the influential Letters of Lord Chesterfield to His Son (written in the 1740s and enormously popular when published in the 1770s). Chesterfield wrote his young son: "No more levity: childish toys and playthings must be thrown aside, and your mind directed to serious objects." Other eighteenth-century parents must, however, be credited with the discovery that play could be instructive. Philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated increased freedom for children. He and others promoted play, especially out-of-doors, for developing physical strength. Child's play came to embody innocence, a romanticized world lost to adults and recorded by many artists. When the childless artist and poet William Blake observed a group of children playing in London's Fountain Court, he exclaimed, "That is heaven!"

By the 1790s, even Queen Charlotte famously indulged child's play, amusing her children with innumerable playthings-miniature toy dogs, horses, a cobbler, a Noah's ark.

William Hogarth
The House of Cards
Oil on canvas
National Museum of Wales

William Hogarth
The Children's Party
Oil on canvas
25 x 28 7/8 in. (63.5 x 73.3 cm)
National Museum of Wales

Joseph Francis Nollekens
Two Children of the Nollekens Family Playing with a Top and Playing Cards
Oil on canvas
14 1/8 x 12 1/4 in. (36 x 31 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Joseph Wright of Derby
The Wood Children
Oil on canvas
66 x 53 in. (167.6 x 134.6 cm)
Derby Museums and Art Gallery

George Morland
Blind ManŐs Buff
Oil on canvas
27 1/2 x 35 1/2 in. (69.9 x 89.8 cm)
The Detroit Institute of Arts. Gift of Elizabeth K. McMillan in memory of her sisters, Mary Isabella McMillan and Annie McMillan
Explore this image in our Self-Guided Tour for Young People

William Hogarth
"First Stage of Cruelty," plate 1 from The Four Stages of Cruelty
15 1/16 x 12 in. (38.3 x 30.5 cm)
Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, UCLA, anonymous gift

James and Josiah Neele
dates unknown
"A Gymnastic Exercise Ground," frontispiece from Gustavus Hamilton, The Elements of gymnastics, for boys, and of calisthenics, for young ladies
London, 1827
4 1/4 x 8 in. (10.8 x 20.3 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

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