This exhibition from 2018 is an exploration of images of childhood through history from the 17th to the 20th century.
In the 1600s, images of children became more common, although there was no concept of the child as an individual. Artists depicted royal and aristocratic children as miniature adults; emblems of dynastic ambition. In a period when infant mortality was high, one in three children died before they reached the age of one.
With the Enlightenment in the 18th century artists started to focus on the child as an individual. Leading thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that children should be considered as autonomous human beings. It was fashionable for the growing middle classes to commission group family portraits. These emphasised the emotional bond between parent and child.
By Victorian times, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation combined with a population explosion meant that one in three of the population was under the age of 15. Infant mortality was still high due to overcrowding, lack of sanitation, disease and tainted milk and food. Children who survived were often expected to work in lethal conditions.
In the 19th century the image of the child became ubiquitous, and reflected an emerging interest in children’s rights. Romantic and sentimental works such as Kate Greenaway’s The Stick Fire and the Garden Bench argue that children are innocents that should be protected and allowed to enjoy their childhood.
20th-century artists have responded in a huge variety of ways to the subject of childhood. Matisse and Picasso took inspiration from looking at children’s drawings to challenge traditional art. Some contemporary artists appropriate the visual language of childhood, using it to express longing for a time of innocence, simplicity and purity. Others have used childhood imagery and adult ideas to address serious themes.
Deborah Hopton and her Son. James Gandy (attributed to) (1619-1689) 1649, oil on canvas.
Dame Deborah was born about 1627. She was the daughter of Robert Hatton, a sergeant-at-law and his wife Alice Dreynes Hatton of Thames Ditton. She had two children, Isaac and Alice, with her first husband Isaac Jones (about 1620-1647). They lived in Kingston, Surrey.
The painting depicts Dame Deborah as a widow. In 1654 she was married for a second time to Sir Edward Hopton of Canon Frome, Herefordshire. He was an M.P. for Hereford and a Royalist and had been a ‘Yeoman of the stirrup to Charles I’. The family had split allegiances with one side fighting for the Cavaliers, the other for the Roundheads. Canon Frome Court, their home, was garrisoned during the Civil Wars on behalf of the king. On 22 July 1645, following a siege of two years, it was taken by the Scots.
Edward and Dame Deborah had two daughters, Alice and Deborah, and four sons. Sir Edward died in 1668 and Dame Deborah at the age of 77 in 1702. The painting remained in the family’s possession until 1942 when it was sold as part of the sale of the estate and its contents.
James Gandy (1619-1689) was one of the earliest English painters. It was thought that Gandy was probably from Exeter and he was most likely a student of Anthony van Dyck. The Duke of Ormonde, his patron, took him to Ireland where he remained until his death. He is the father of the artist William Gandy, the portrait painter.
The Palmer Family. James Leakey (1775-1865), about 1822, oil on panel.
In the early 1700s, family paintings often included members of the wider family. Instead, in this early 19th century painting, the nuclear family is the centre of attention. These 19th-century works often show families relaxed, apparently caught unaware by the viewer in an emotionally intimate moment.
Throughout the 19th century the middle classes expanded rapidly. There was a new emphasis on upward mobility, etiquette and conspicuous consumption. Commissioning a family portrait by a well-known artist became a way of signalling financial success.
James Leakey was known mostly for his delicate miniatures painted in oil on ivory. He also painted portraits, landscapes and small interior scenes with rustic figures. He spent most of his life in Exeter moving for a time to London, from 1821-25. There, he became closely acquainted with David Wilkie and Sir Francis Baring.
Leakey exhibited several paintings at the Royal Academy: in 1821, The Marvellous Tale, in 1822 The Fortune Teller, in 1838 Portraits and Landscapes, and in 1846 The Distressed Wife.
LONG READ: Did you miss this exhibition in 2022? It is recreated online. ‘In Plain Sight – Transatlantic Slavery and Devon’ uses RAMM’s collections and the expertise of many contributors to shed light on local relationships with slavery that are all around us, but for some remain ‘hidden in plain sight’.