Centuries of Childhood: Portraits of Children from Holbein to Freud
by Dr Amy Orrock
(12th October 2021)

Edward VI as a child by Holbein c1537.jpg
Dr Amy Orrock.jpg

Children have always fascinated artists, and this lecture to The Arts Society Alton by visiting speaker Dr Amy Orrock considered the ways in which children have been shown in portraits. It featured formal royal portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger, Robert Peake and Anthony van Dyck to the works of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, to the likenesses of their own children captured by artists such as Lucien Freud.

The speaker had curated an exhibition on the theme at Compton Verney Art Gallery in Warwickshire back in 2019 and gave a well-structured presentation drawing attention to why children were the subjects of paintings. Human stories emerged as the images, which attempted to capture the fleeting nature of childhood, were put in context. The challenges of drawing an active youngster, of negotiating with the patron who was often royalty, of painting a lost child were illustrated with examples of sketches, drawings and finished paintings.

With images from the Royal collection including Edward VI (that the lecture was on the anniversary of his birth in 1537 was not lost on some) and was the most painted royal prince was perhaps understandable considering his father’s wish for a male heir, the audience was treated to a story of changing royal artists, of changing styles. Eventually this led to the commercialisation of such portraits - the picture by Sir John Everett Millais originally titled A Child’s World was later used in an advert for Pears soap when it became known as Bubbles. Whilst an icon of the later Victorian era, there are deeper meanings as the bubble was well known as a symbol of the short lifespan of humans. It had a history of being used in paintings known as ‘’memento mori’ works which sought to remind people that human life was a brief interval, followed by death.

The lecture was very illuminating as it captured in a fascinating range of paintings and drawings depicting the fleeting time of childhood and provided a commentary on the changes in children’s fashions over five hundred years.

Tony Cross

Photo credit for the portrait of Edward VI: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington