ART / From the mouths of babes: Portraits of children are not always as innocent as they seem. Dalya Alberge reports

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The Independent Culture
In putting together a major exhibition of images of children in British art since 1600 at the Manchester City Art Galleries, the organisers, Joan Crossley and Sara Holdsworth, have been keen to avoid a display of pretty pictures. Determined to put the looming image of soppy, greetings-card Victoriana in its proper persective, they devised a thematic display - one that would take an 'unsentimental' look at adults' changing perceptions of childhood.

To underline the contrasts and connections, images from different periods are juxtaposed: Gainsborough rubs shoulders with Gilbert and George, William Blake with Peter Blake. A strict chronological display would have lessened, for example, the impact of seeing together the mother-child compositions of William Mulready and Helen Chadwick, starkly different with a century separating them. The Mulready, a tender 1859 picture of an angelic infant sitting attentively on its mother's lap, embodies the Victorian preoccupation with a mother's influence on a child's education; the Chadwick, a disturbing 1985 composition, shows the child still bloody from birth and attached to its umbilical cord - a statement, say the organisers, about the anguish of childbirth, and challenging our assumptions by making the Virgin's child a girl.

The show illustrates how artists this century - taking their cue from Freud and the development of psychology - have tended to draw upon autobiographical experience (like Carel Weight's Frightened Children, about his lonely boyhood). Artists from the 16th to 18th centuries, working within the constraints of patronage, were primarily conveying a child's future status. So often, children in Old Master pictures look like shrunken adults. As Holdsworth says, 'in such portraits, childhood is not beautiful or valuable in itself, but for the future adult who can be discerned in the child'.

The different approaches are illustrated by, for example, the 1983 Anxious Baby by Dennis Creffield and the 1611 Child with a Rattle (thought to represent the second Earl of Arundel) attributed to Paul Van Somer. Creffield's expressionistic wailing newborn has a pained expression and contorted body that suggest the miserable world he will face; Somer presents a child set for its future as a powerful aristocrat, and he has the dignified posture, ostentatiously-embroidered dress and wise face of a grown-up man. Such portraits were designed for public show. Though he holds a toy, a gold rattle, only a dog, playfully leaping up at him, gives the subtlest suggestion of the child beneath the adult veneer.

However, Crossley and Holdsworth refute the suggestion held by some historians that children in the 17th and 18th centuries were not loved in the same way as they are today. In the course of their research, they found that a number of the child-subjects of portraits had actually died before the artist had put brush to canvas: the parents loved them enough to commission portraits of them even after their death. Hogarth's famous Graham Children has long been interpreted as a celebration of childhood, yet the youngest of the four children was already dead by the time the commission was finished. The image of Cupid brandishing Time's sickle on the clock may symbolise this loss.

Hogarth was invited to paint at the child's deathbed. This seems intensely morbid today, but it was common in an age when infant mortality was high, when one in five children died before their fifth birthday. Some historians have suggested that parents distanced themselves from their offspring because of the probability that the babies would not survive. However, what could be more loving than Ramsay's sketch of his own dead child, as if only asleep? Painting him was therapeutic; the artist said that his grief left him when he painted but returned when he stopped. Today, doctors encourage parents to come to terms with the loss of a baby by photographing it.

Identity in the 17th-century was shaped by status, family and gender. For example, in Van Dyck's portrait, The Five Children of Charles I, the offspring are grouped in order of importance - typical of such portraits, however seemingly informal. For Crossley and Holdsworth, this raises questions about the exploitation of children, 'whether the family is an oppressive or nurturing institution'. They suggest parallels between the seductive Lady Charlotte Fitzroy - Lely's 1670 portrait of Charles II's illegitimate daughter pictured, at the time of her betrothal, as a desirable woman of the court rather than the eight-year-old she was - and the 'pin-up' urban youth in Gilbert and George's 1984 Berryboy.

Robin Vousden, a director of the Anthony d'Offay Gallery which represents Gilbert and George, thinks Crossley and Holdsworth are seeing things that may not be there. 'Berryboy is just an innocent picture of a child surrounded by beautiful berries. . . seeing overt sexuality in it reveals what is in the mind of the beholder. . . To dump all that nonsense on this picture is ridiculous.'

The organisers set out to illustrate in the exhibitiom how 'desirable behaviour' for young girls hardly changed from the 17th to mid-20th centuries. Taking the example of Cornelius Johnson's 1640s Capel Family and Kate Greenaway's 1890s The Garden Seat, they interpret the enclosed gardens in both pictures as alluding to the little girls' future roles within the home. (OK, so there's a boy in Greenaway's picture, but the hoop he is holding is symbolic of freewheeling freedom.)

Robin Gibson, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, does not view the Greenaway with such a politically correct eye. Walled gardens, he explains, were a regular feature of large Victorian houses. And as Jane Baker, curator of fine art at Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum - from where the Greenaway has come - says, 'all the artist was doing was a charming picture of two children. It was nicer to have the girl on the seat. . . the boy with a hoop to create a sense of movement. There's an awful trend at the moment towards social history and feminism. . .'

The exhibition includes Lowry's The Family, its figures stiff and ignoring one other, stressing the lack of any relationship. (The catalogue quotes Lowry saying, 'I never had a family. All I had round me was a garden fence'.) Winifred Nicholson's portrait of her husband and child is a portrait of maternal love (the child gazing lovingly out at the painter); William Hoare's Portrait of Christopher Anstey is a study in male detachment.

At least, that is the way Crossley and Holdsworth see them. Not everyone will agree. As Gibson says of the Hoare (on loan from the NPG), 'this picture seems a reverse of what they're saying. I can't think of any other picture with father and daughter. It would have been dotty to put his daughter in the picture because she was a nuisance and he was not fond of her.' But then, there's nothing quite like a family argument.

Manchester City Art Galleries, Mosley St, Manchester (061-2365244) to 15 November; then, Nottingham Castle Museum, 16 Jan-20 Feb, and Glasgow Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, 6 Mar-25 Apr. Sponsored by BT.

(Photographs omitted)