Education: Putting on a big act for art: A new project for schools breathes life into the world's great masterpieces, says Helen Franks

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HELEN ANDERSON, actress, delivers some of her best lines when she's talking about art. She is part of a team of volunteers that brings famous paintings alive for schoolchildren.

The Magic Lantern Project, which introduces students to art through drama, music and slide presentations, is in its second term after a successful pilot earlier in the year at primary schools in south London. It is the brainchild of Diana Schomberg, who was made redundant as a French teacher 10 years ago and has been active in art ever since - first as a volunteer guide at Dulwich Picture Gallery, then by gaining a diploma in the history of art.

Why actors? 'Because they have communication skills and voice control. Because they are a novelty to the children and have an unacademic approach. Because they can project enthusiasm. And because there is always a huge pool of actors looking for other work,' Ms Schomberg says.

The project is sponsored for this second term by Marks & Spencer's Community Affairs. The longer term future is uncertain, but teachers who have used the Magic Lantern Project have no doubt about its educational value.

Children no longer paint neat little rows of trees with green leaves and brown bark after they have learnt that Rousseau used pot plants to create his jungle effects. And they gain a new insight into social history when they study Poussin's The Triumph of David and see the way the crowd gathered and gossiped, how the young people were out for a good time and mothers were prepared to let their babies witness the horror of the beheaded warrior.

Mary Gartlitte, a teacher at Christ Church CE primary school, Surbiton, says: 'I feel sure that it will help the children to look at pictures and encourage them to visit galleries in the future. It was good to see them focusing and listening with such concentration.'

The children are tough and unsentimental critics and pin up their testimonials on a classroom wall. One boy says of Turner's Steam and Speed: 'The picture was quite good, but not very good. The train was going at 43 miles an hour and called the Greyhound because it was near a greyhound track and in the picture the Greyhound chased a hare, which was a little joke. Turner didn't do many jokes.'

Ms Anderson, who has performed on television and stage, is one of nine actors involved in Magic Lantern. She gets enormous pleasure out of this sideline. 'It's fantastic and very immediate, like acting, but you're interacting with the children,' she says.

They were trained on a series of Sunday afternoons in Ms Schomberg's Greenwich home. The classroom presentations cover about six paintings and last for about an hour and a half. The paintings are chosen because they can be seen at galleries in easy reach.

Ms Anderson talks about one of the toughest paintings in the repertoire - Braque's Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece. Her audience of nine- and 10-year-olds at the James Wolfe primary school in Greenwich is entranced.

She points out the very strong lines on the painting. 'What do they remind you of? Yes, they make me think of rain too. What about the colours? Pretty boring, did you say? Yes, I'd agree. There's a good reason for it. Colours make you feel things, like yellow may make you feel cheerful, but Braque didn't want you to feel anything in this picture. He used very dull colours - brown and grey and black - to make you think about what a clarinet is like or a bottle of rum.'

One child can see a face where the expert would see a mandolin, but Ms Anderson is unperturbed. 'Yes, I hadn't thought of that. It could be a face too.'

This tolerance is a very important part of the training. 'We're here to share with the children. I try never to contradict if they see something I wouldn't have thought was there. If you've seen it then it's there for you. I might offer some suggestions, but never say no.'

(Photograph omitted)