Website Review

The New Child: British Art and the Origins of Modern Childhood, 1730-1830

The New Child: British Art and the Origins of Modern Childhood, 1730-1830 exhibit at the University Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, UC Berkeley is presented in this companion website of mixed quality and effectiveness. The site consists of nine segments that feature artworks related to themes of childhood such as innocence, parenthood, childrearing, play, institutions, and charity. Most of the thumbnails of the artworks are available in larger size, though not sufficient for detailed study, and some enlargements are unavailable. Hyperlinked word definitions and identifications in the text are mostly broken links. The site is aesthetically very ordinary, with its robin's egg blue background, serif font text, and small image size that do not flatter the mostly dark-toned paintings.

The exhibit claims to document a significant change in the "construct" of childhood in Europe, representing a change in attitude toward children's needs and development. Moreover, British artworks of the Georgian period reflect these changes as Britain "led the way in Europe to viewing childhood as a special phase of human existence." The introduction further claims that family relations changed to "bonds of affection rather than economics. The child, once on the periphery, moved to the center of family affections." The text relates this social change to mercantile economies, urbanization, and industrialization, but the paintings and engravings nearly all represent upper and upper-middle class life. Scenes of lavish interiors, well-dressed portrait sitters, and verdant estates in the background of these paintings depict children as the objects of adoring parents, or make them appear as accessories of the virtuous and prosperous life. Children wearing formal clothing appear stiffly posed in romantic outdoor scenes, and as oddly small figures in dramatic classical interiors with huge columns and drapery. A few, such as George Morland's "Blind Man's Bluff" present children more naturally, but place them in idyllic woods.

Notes to the segments of the exhibition do explore themes of class divisions and disparities in urban and rural society, particularly the enclosure movement. One of the few functioning external links on the site leads to Oliver Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village," a poem that laments the devastating effects of enclosure on traditional rural life. At a time when children labored under dreadful conditions, faced imprisonment for petty crimes, and impoverishment was rampant in Britain, it seems ironic at best to make the general claim that affection rather than economics defined children's place in the family. The point is made in some of the exhibit segments, but not consistently presented throughout. For example, William Hogarth's 1751 engraving "First Stage of Cruelty," is placed in the segment Child's Play, Toys and Recreation. Another incongruous sequence has wealthy children playing with a hobby-horse in the midst of artworks on foundlings, orphans and moral instruction.

The segment Family and Sentiment is a jumble of didactic paintings and engravings on different subjects, in which the reader would benefit from more detailed notes on each work than the bare exhibit tags with title and artist. Children, Class, and Countryside displays seven artworks that depict romanticized rural poverty, idealized children, satire, and nostalgic rural scenes. The notes describe a coherent view of how British artists represented class and economic issues of the day, but the artworks are too random and unexplained to really illustrate the movement. Some of the notes completely contradict the displayed items. The Georgian Family segment discusses middle class families as leaders in the changing family structure, but the paintings display what seem to be aristocratic family portraits, except for two, as near as the viewer can tell.

Among the most interesting and revealing features of the site is the interview with the curator of the original exhibit, James Steward. He explains how this collection fits within the body of European art, and how the paintings, drawings, and engravings selected for the exhibit exemplify a departure from earlier European and British art in a way that should be better reflected in the collection displayed and the introductions to each segment. His statements about the background in literature and economic changes in Britain give greater credence to the historical significance of the exhibit than the notes on each segment.

A feature of the site that is still functional is the Self-Guided Tour for Young People and their Families. Only four paintings in the exhibit are illuminated by a few sentences of explanation and 4–5 guiding questions for examination of the image, and definitions of artistic terminology. The questions are open-ended and without expert answers, however, and the images are too small for careful examination. Five of the exhibit segments are not represented by this feature.

This site surely highlights an important period and location in the history of childhood—post-Enlightenment Britain in the midst of its early industrialization. The site is a good source of images that illustrate social and intellectual trends among largely upper-class people and the artists they patronized. The site does not provide convincing evidence, however, for the over-generalized claims made in its curatorial text segments. The complete exhibit may have done so effectively when it was mounted in 1995, but the site built to accompany it is ineffectively designed and poorly maintained.

How to Cite This Source

Susan Douglass, "The New Child: British Art and the Origins of Modern Childhood, 1730-1830," in Children and Youth in History, Item #248, (accessed January 22, 2022).

The New Child: British Art and the Origins of Modern Childhood, 1730-1830 exhibit at the University Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, UC Berkeley is presented in this companion website of mixed quality and effectiveness.