… capturing the luminosity of childhood …

Van Dyck Daughters of Charles I portrait royalty

Compton Verney excels at finding a fresh angle and by gathering a wonderful selection of art to create an absorbing, worthwhile exhibition. The spread of the show starts with a very fine Hans Holbein‘s preparatory sketch in chalk of Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward IV) made c.1540-43 and runs through 450 years to Louise Bourgeois‘ drypoints of family life from 1994. The exhibition includes some very fine group portraits including The Five Children of Charles I, 1637 by Van Dyck (the one with Charles’ hand on the head of a huge mastiff dog – surely some kind of premonition?) and a few celebrity images such as the impossibly cute Bubbles, 1886, by Millais.

However the stars of the show are unpolished preparatory sketches and less mannered works which capture the fleeting luminosity of childhood through colour and brushstroke and my three favourites are …

The first – absolute star of the show – is the oil sketch of Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne, Daughters of Charles I, 1637, by Van Dyck (above). Shown alongside the huge and finished The Five Children of Charles I, the work is a delight of quick brushstroke and deft handling which absolutely captures the essence of childhood – and shows off Van Dyck’s joie-de-vivre before his portraits of the two princesses become more formal in the final painting.

My second choice, from a century later, is A Child Asleep, c. 1782, by Reynolds (detail below). The painter made his career out of society portraits and was also known for his depiction of children. This unfinished sketch richly conjures up the innocence and grace of a child. I was transfixed by his rendition of the full lips and plump cheeks of this sleeping face – which just teeters but doesn’t fall over into Victorian mawkishness.

Joshua Reynolds Asleep Childhood

And the final work I kept coming back to was Camille Pissarro‘s Jeanne Holding A Fan, c.1873, (detail below). Again what is so alluring about the work is the understated way Pissarro has captured the fragile innocence of the girl, using the stark whiteness of her blouse to highlight her flushed cheeks. Known as Minette, Jeanne was Pissarro’s favourite daughter who died of tuberculosis shortly after this was painted.

Pissarro Camile Jeanne with a Fan

Her sad life leads me to note the an underlying theme of the exhibition is death. The Baby Princess Anne in the Van Dyck sketch only lived to 3 years old and Princess Elizabeth died when she was 14 of pneumonia, a year after her father had been executed. There is a heart rendering sketch, Infant Son of the Artist, c.1741, by Ramsay who died at just 14 months and the whole topic is explored in the thoughtful catalogue essay: ‘That beloved object’: Child Portraiture, Memory and Mourning by Emily Knight, Ass Curator of Paintings at the V&A.

The exhibition, Painting Childhood, runs until 16 June 2019 (Tue – Fri 11am – 4pm; Weekends – 11am – 5pm) and is definitely worth a visit. If you haven’t been to Compton Verney before, I urge you to go.   The exhibition space, permanent exhibitions and park are a delight and make a great day out for both art fiends, nature lovers and families.  There’s a lovely cafe, an adventure playground for children, and boardwalks and pond dipping around the lake.  Click here to be directed to their website.

Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne, Daughters of Charles I, 1637, by Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). National Galleries of Scotland.

A Child Asleep, c. 1782, by Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). The Christopher Tower Collection.

Jeanne Holding A Fan, c.1873, by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.