Book Shorts

Children’s portraits without shadows: new book on painting childhood

No Chucky or Lord of the Flies in portraits by British and British-based artists

Chantal Joffe, Esme’s 7th Birthday (2011) Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice

Apart from portraits of royal families’ sprogs, children did not become discrete art subjects until the 18th-century embourgeoisement of Europe. Thereafter their depictions were inflected by social changes and needs. This little book which accompanies the exhibition of the same title at Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire (until 16 June) picks out some of the recurrent features of paintings of kids: royal portraits, mourning pictures, the “fancy” pictures (imaginative and/or narrative scenes of everyday life) and paintings by artists of their children. Needless to say, the children all come from “privileged” backgrounds and their portraitists are all famous British or Britain-based artists: Holbein the Younger, Van Dyck, Jan Steen, Murillo, Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Zoffany, Millais, Louise Bourgeois and Lucian Freud. The book includes three contemporary figurative artists (featured in a complementary, simultaneous exhibition, Childhood Now)—Chantal Joffe, Mark Fairnington and Matthe Krishanu—who, like their historic forebears, give no indication of there being any other kind of child except the well-adjusted (above, Chantal Joffe, Esme’s 7th Birthday). No knife-wielding, affectless, psychopathic urchins are anywhere to be seen.

  • Emily Knight et al, Painting Childhood, Paul Holberton Publishing, 96pp, £16.50, $22, €18.50 (pb)