Master class: How the National Gallery is turning children on to art

The National Gallery is inspiring children to respond creatively to its paintings. Jay Merrick watches young masters and mistresses at work
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Harry is five, and tired in an I'm-not-tired-Miss way, despite having travelled for four hours on a bus from Wolverhampton to the capital. He has walked up the marble entrance stairs of London's National Gallery, and up another flight to reach Room 1. Here, surrounded by artworks, his words come in a seamlessly rhythmic stream, untroubled by doubt or pauses. "When I saw a picture of it real I thought it's not real but it was real Peter Paul Rubens did it and I was amazed I've forgotten which one's mine I like drawing like any artist sort of thing there's other rooms there's computers and stuff and you see a real artist's room it's better things in real life."

Harry's emphases are clearly for my benefit. Room 1 is noisy, and he's making sure that I understand things clearly. A thorough sort of chap.

Harry's here with a selected troupe of children from Castlecroft Primary School in Wolverhampton, and his last six words have absolutely nailed the purpose of their visit: it's better, things in real life.

In this case, things mean great art, and real life means actually seeing great art. The children are here because the finger paintings of Castlecroft's four- and five-year-olds were selected from entries from 170 primary schools around the country in the National Gallery's Take One Picture scheme (on until 13 July).

The idea is simple and has been successfully deployed in other places such as Room 13 in Scotland, and the Clore Duffield Foundation. More than 80,000 school children visit the National Gallery every year, and primary schools are invited to take part in projects based on artistic responses to a particular great painting. This year, it's Rubens's An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, probably painted in 1636.

"The National Gallery has always been aware of the huge potential that looking at paintings has for unlocking children's imaginations and also as a vehicle for learning," says the gallery's schools officer Alexandra Hill. "What has been particularly fascinating with Take One Picture is the different directions the schools have taken the project in. The children's ideas have often exceeded everyone's expectations."

The scheme inspires cross-curricular work in primary classrooms, using the image both as a stimulus for artwork, and for work inunexpected curriculum areas, she says. It has generated a satellite scheme called Take One Picture: North, East, South West, in which the National Gallery worked with regional galleries, the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle and Bristol's City Museum and Art Gallery, which now runs its own Take One Picture projects with local schools and communities."

Take One Picture is linked with teacher training programmes at five universities. The National Gallery offers 176 placements each year for trainee teachers from these institutions, when they learn how to use the Gallery's collection to teach across the curriculum.

In Room 1, Thomas and Harjorth – four and five, respectively – are holding hands, and will remain palm-Velcroed to each other for the next two hours, presumably as protection against being teleported even further into a world that, for the moment, seems a little strange. But no stranger, surely, than the sight of their local Labour MP, Rob Marris, wedged into a corner behind the children for a photo-op.

The Castlecroft pupils release him from their barbican, and are bristling with energy despite having had to wait until Oxford for a loo-break. They have suffered stoically for their art and now, in this dimly lit room, can see their finger-paintings of trees next to the Rubens, and the work of the other selected primary schools.

"Take One Picture is a fabulous project," says Castlecroft's headmistress, Tish Keech. "It frees up the curriculum." By that, she means that it injects new vigour into other subjects, such as dance and drama. The school's own encomium highlights higher than average Key Stage 2 scores, and exceptional provision in sport and arts. There are regular visits to their local art gallery, and to Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

But what about the art in Room 1? Apart from Castlecroft, the selected works come from Enborne CE Primary School, Newbury; Esher Church School, Surrey; Maun Infant and Nursery School, New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire; Ruskin Junior School, Swindon; Southam Primary School, Warwickshire; St Mary's CE Primary School, Bridport, Dorset; St Nicholas CE Primary School, Radstock, Bath; Takeley Primary School, Bishops Stortford; and Wheeler Primary School, Hull.

Several of the art projects are exceptional. The collage produced by the first-year class at Takeley Primary School is a startling response to An Autumn Landscape. Rubens's vision is languid and limpid; the eye is firmly led, by the angles of a muddy cart track and lines of trees, into a world of quiet rural order. The pupils at Takeley overlaid an essentially urban collage on a framed copy of An Autumn Landscape, which is obliterated by queues of cars, road signs, terraces, blocks of flats, compressed green spaces. All we see of Rubens's painting are tree-tops, two birds, and high, mustardy cloud.

For these pupils, autumn and landscape in the world's third most densely populated country have become largely denatured phenomena. But seen and accepted, or seen and objected to? The work hovers between fleeting juvenile polemic, and a naive pleasure in the patterns that can be generated by semi-rural life in 21st century Britain. The composition of the superimposed imagery has been applied with the greatest care. It seems scarcely conceivable that this is the work of primary school juniors living in the Spreadvilles and Boomburbs of the Herts-Essex borderland, who might think that irony was what fire-grates felt like.

Just above a marvellously vivid "country" theatre set composed by children at Enborne CE Primary School – Rubens's bucolism restored – float Maun Infant and Nursery School's starkly boxy cows with loo-roll tube legs, heavily daubed with black-and-white paint. They're hilarious, but mounted in this way, well above head-height, they radiate a certain surreality: an innocence given power not so much by the art objects themselves, charming though they are, but by their elevated positioning. We normally have to look down at small children, and their creations, don't we?

The poetry trees produced by eight- and nine-year-olds at Ruskin Junior School are an obvious enough idea. They've turned the content of Rubens's scene into words. Plants and trees produce sports of nature – sudden, unexpected variations of colour or form; and so do the word-barked branches of these trees: "Twigs elegantly reaching, thin and fragile" borders on haiku; and "the tree has been here for years and years watching time pass by", may well prove to have been the work of a future Friend of the Earth.

But it is the artwork next to the poetry trees that is surely the star of the show. Using cardboard, glue-guns and heavy-duty scissors, senior pupils at Southam Primary School have produced a riveting series of angular reliefs, abstracting country scenes in a way that recalls the symbolism of British postwar modern painters. It's true that the children were helped by an artist-in-residence, but one can see the childish hands in the work, and this is what makes it compelling. Bernard Jacobson, the legendary Cork Street gallerist, would love this stuff.

Later, explaining three selected paintings in the National Gallery, Castlecroft's guide Paul Kavanagh, in pale grey suede shoes and outsize glasses, wins over Tish Keech's protégés with consummate ease, despite having to explain Poussin's The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Pierre Mignard's The Marquise de Seignelay and Two of Her Sons andTurner's The Fighting Temeraire – next year's subject for Take One Picture. "God gave Moses something when he was up the mountain," he explained, pointing at Poussin's depiction. "Do you know what it was? What's that? A burning bush? No! It was rules!"

The flow of his information, cross-references to music and history, and his amused, prodding questions is virtuosic. As a result, Maia, five, whose dazzling hair would certainly have interested Rossetti, puts her hand up to answer every question. But it is Arthur, 10, who actually seems to have the answer to everything. There is mass tittering when Kavanagh refers to Cupid in Mignard's portrait: "If you were sent a golden arrow, all will be well. If you get a lead arrow from him, you're going to have a lot of trouble. I think the Marquise de Seignelay must have been very rich, don't you? Is anybody here very rich? You are?"

Daniel, seven, is looking rather pleased with himself. "You've got £5? No? You've got £85! You have? That's more than I've got!"

In front of The Fighting Temeraire, Kavanagh goes into overdrive, with a brilliant fugue invoking history, shipbuilding, sea battle conditions, shanties, and the death of Nelson. "If you were on that ship, the night before the battle, you might want to write a letter to your girlfriend." A ripple of giggles, and pinking cheeks. "And what about Turner and Nelson. They're dead, but on a dark night, they could have a chat about this painting. You never know!" Young Arthur sits forward, alertly, on message and ready to clarify matters. "He knows about Moses!" exclaims Kavanagh. "He knows about Nelson! I'm very glad you're here today."

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