I’ve been on a research binge the past few days, looking into nineteenth-century ideas about the relationship between children and art. This has become mind-numbingly complex. Toward the end of the century, there is a lot of information — too much, really — about connections between children’s art and the new discipline of psychology, but up until the 1880s or so the only accessible information about children and art is found in educational theory and practices.
I may have mentioned before what a whirling tornado of depression and bad feelings results when I try to even understand Victorian education. It makes me violent and mean. I transform into a gremlin surrounded by dirty coffee cups and an empty king-size bag of Doritos.
Those zany Victorians and their wacky system of education — multiple systems, really, that become even more confusing when I try to concentrate on art education. Even briefly perusing the available information on the topic, I discover a million societies and day schools and examination committees and department heads and private schools and design academies. Some institutions are payment-by-results. Others are ragged schools. Some think art is for everyone, and others turn up their noses and say art is inappropriate for the unwashed masses. All of them seemed to hate Robert Lowe for a while, and there is some general grumbling about whether or not children should use paints or if pencil, chalk, and ink will suffice. Many educators make trite comments — possibly not trite at the time — about returning the child to nature and letting him draw flowers and ladybugs and other things twee.
So lately I’ve been turning off my laptop each night unsure of what kind of children went to which schools and if they were taught how to draw at all. And this is a painful feeling after so much reading and note-taking. I begin to hate all children and despise their cutesy, inept scrawlings. I found myself inadvertently sneering at the neat rows of Crayola crayons at Target yesterday. Children’s art? WHO CARES. Quash their pint-sized reserves of creativity!
And then once in a while I’ll run across a particularly juicy morsel of information — one of those quirky Victorian anecdotes that I can throw out during a cocktail party to demonstrate how learned and wise I am. Or what a nerd I am. It depends on your point of view. Anyway. Apparently, in 1890, the Drawing Society (who knows what they did or why they existed — guh) began exhibiting children’s art. This is before modernism, when artists like Klee and Miro convinced everyone that drawing like a child was a Big Important Deal. Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, was somehow involved in these exhibitions, and her husband dubbed the shows “The Children’s Royal Academy.”
The public loved it. They were drunk on sentimental and quirky illustrations for children — the countrified, rosy-cheeked babies by Kate Greenaway and the Mary Jane-wearing Alice of John Tenniel. Art by children, perhaps, was considered an even more intense pleasure. Princess Louise actually purchased one of the exhibited pieces in 1892, a watercolor of 112 figures, painted by a 12-year-old girl, entitled “Babyland.”
Now I need to see this “Babyland.” And, of course, I can’t find it. Or any other information on these exhibitions outside of a small, short paragraph in one book that was published in 1970.
Of course, I’ve done very limited research on the topic. Hopefully soon I’ll be ornamenting my latest dissertation chapter with the artwork of the Children’s Royal Academy. It’s just what my research needs, really — awkward figures with lopsided bodies and eyes floating uneasily outside of their heads. Cats with eight legs. Feet that resemble garden rakes, their toes at impossible angles. The work that made it into the exhibition was, most likely, more sophisticated than that, but a girl can dream.