Andrew Lambirth

The child in time

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This is the fourth of the Holburne’s recent exhibitions devoted to 18th-century British portraiture, a series which has done much to put the Museum on the map of enlightened gallery-goers. Previous subjects have been Love’s Prospect (dealing with the marriage portrait), Pickpocketing the Rich (portrait-painting in Bath) and Every Look Speaks (portraits of David Garrick). Pictures of Innocence is a suitably contrasting subject and the first in-depth treatment of this particular aspect of child portraiture. It has been organised in partnership with Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, where you will be able to view a slightly different version of the show from 12 July to 8 October, and the whole project has been made possible by a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. It is a successful exhibition in two essential ways: the accompanying catalogue is a work of real scholarship, while the selection of work offers entertainment and pleasure to a more generally interested public.

The exhibition is divided between two galleries at the top and bottom of the building. Best to ascend to the top gallery first, where the greater part of the show is disposed around the museum-red walls, interspersed with furniture from the Holburne’s permanent collection. The first painting is by Jonathan Richardson, of the ten-year-old Garton Orme wearing a blue coat and seated at a vaguely Cubisty spinet. Down the left side of the painting undulates an apparently supererogatory silver curtain, but its role is in fact precise, to indicate opulence. Garton looks quite the little innocent, yet grew up to be a rake and a spendthrift. So how illusory is this notion of childish innocence? Hogarth, in his 1753 treatise The Analysis of Beauty, has this to say: ‘There is but little to be seen in children’s faces, more than that they are heavy or lively.’ How then to paint youthful character? For we are told that the basic personality is fixed by the age of five. It is surely far more difficult to spot the character which may be formed but not yet emergent than to depict the characteristics which mark a face of 50.

Two paintings by Hogarth himself come next: a pair of oddities which seem to depict a tragedy, ‘Before’ and ‘After’. A child is missing from the second scene, and it is doubtless his death that is mourned here. (The black pug in the foreground of ‘Before’ is traditionally associated with bad luck.) But what is so odd about these pictures is the overlarge heads placed on the little bodies, bringing to the picture more than a touch of Vel