Friday, 20 September 2013

Connecting the Dots Part 2: The Invention of Childhood.

In order to discuss Victorian attitudes toward the notion of innocence during the nineteenth century first we must look at the inception of the notion of innocence as a concept in western ideology. Before the 17th century there was little understanding as we have today of a childhood that should be cherished as a golden age of innocence[1]. Children were generally thought of as little people until they were old enough to enter the workforce. Childhood initially, was seen in purely economic terms. The coming of the 17th century saw a new parental anxiety familiar to that of our current culture. Reformation and the teachings of John Calvin brought about the concept of a child born in original sin, thought correctible only through rigid discipline, hard work and corporal punishment.

Catholicism of the sixteenth century held that a child was relieved of the burden of original sin once it had been baptized, whereas in Protestantism the Nuremberg Catechism preached that even in the womb, children had “Evyll Lustes and Appetites”[2]. Teaching through catechisms was the main way in which the powers of church and state sought to wean people away from Catholicism and towards Protestantism. Protestants and Puritans agonized endlessly over their children’s inherent sinfulness, so concerned were they about child mortality that they taught their children catechisms – lessons in religion, the knowledge of which was believed to ensure the child’s soul entry into heaven – which they were then required to reiterate to their parents in gruelling question and answer sessions sometimes lasting hours. Catechism texts were so important during this time that out of more than 260 books written for children during the 17th century, almost all were religious save for two books of riddles, a few on sport and a few more on polite behaviour[3]. The repetition of Catechisms literally taught the child to become an adult from an early age and to behave as their adults did.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Dutch had become one of the dominant world powers through aggressive trade tactics and slaving. At home they were family focused and portraits of the time, commissioned around the occasion of the birth of a child, would feature the whole family gathered around the central hearth of a large family home, the literal and symbolic heart of the Dutch home. Despite these strong symbols of family unity, often the children are depicted as miniature men and women, literally shrunken versions of their parents. In the family portrait ‘Ladies Celebrating the Birth of a Child, and Gentlemen Looking on from Behind a Screen, In an Interior’ by Hieronymous Janssens (1624-1693), the newborn baby is depicted like a doll, held aloft by a wet-nurse, while the young children are shown wearing the same clothing and acting in the same manner as their adult counterparts and not as children, suggesting that they were still thought of as miniature adults and not as innocent children. Paintings such as 'A Family in an Interior' by Jan Olis (c.1610-76) were used as symbols of wealth and reputation and through these the reputation and future of the family were seen as more important than the individual needs of the children.

Over in England, in Anthony Van Dyck’s painting of ‘George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham and Lord Francis Villiers’ (1635) the two children, not much more than ten years old, are portrayed in the fashionable adult dress of the period. They adopt the masculine pose of the time, one leg extended forward, feet pointed outward, hands on hips. George stares out at the viewer in a confrontational manner, aware of his powerful status and the influence he has over others, while Francis looks to his older brother with subordinate admiration.

A later painting ‘Portrait of a young girl seated wearing a white dress and a bonnet, a tame bird resting on the arm of her chair, tied with a blue ribbon’, shows a young girl in a bonnet and dress of a grown woman. However, this portrait from the late 1700s suggests a softening of attitudes toward children in wealthy Dutch families. She is presented in a regal fashion, yet has a slightly bemused expression on her face, like that of a child. Although she is depicted seated on an adult sized chair, a tame bird perched on her arm; a focus on the child’s inherent innocence and an interest in her individual identity appears to be coming into play.

In the 18th century, however, under the influence of the Enlightenment, pictures of children slowly began to change. Initially, elite painters in the British Academy such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and Henry Raeburn began to depict clients' children less as their future adult roles would indicate but more as a state to be enjoyed and indulged as a new appreciation of childhood, free from adult faults, social evils and sexuality became prevalent. Many of these artists seem to have been operating under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s text Emile (1762). Rousseau, who lived in England between 1765 and 1767, was sceptical of the traditional religious teachings of the time and, declaring that “childhood is unknown”[4], suggested to parents that they raise their children as gently as possible, with toys and games, in simple, loose clothing rather than the heavy, ruffled coats of the period. Before this, there was not really such a thing as children’s clothing or fashion, previously, boys were treated and dressed in the same manner as girls until they were about five or six years of age, at which point they were dressed as adults and expected to behave as such. Rousseau taught that “the first impulses of nature are always right, there is no original sin in the human heart, and the how and why of every vice can be traced”[5]

     By the 1780’s Joshua Reynolds had, as the president of the Royal Academy of Painting, earned himself enough money to spend a large amount of his time on painting whatsoever he desired, which was to paint children. Reynolds often painted beggar children from the streets of London who he would entertain with stories and games, unlike his contemporaries who would whip their young models in order to keep them still, Reynolds sought to capture the natural expressions that came from a child’s delight at being entertained rather than directing them in how a child should look. Frederic George Stephens, in his 1867 book ‘English Children as Painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds’ stated that “Reynolds, of all artists, painted children best…The childless man knew most of childhood, depicted its appearances in the truest and happiest spirit of comedy, entered into its soul with the tenderest, heartiest sympathy, played with the playful, sighed with the sorrowful, and mastered all the craft of infancy”[6]

In the painting by Joshua Reynolds known as ‘The Age of Innocence’, there is a focus on the child as an individual outside of its relationship to the adult world. The fact that the original title ‘Portrait of a Girl’, was changed upon its purchase by the National Gallery, became synonymous with the way in which society was beginning to view its youth. The identity of the little girl has been lost but during this period, Reynolds’ also painted ‘Portrait of Penelope Boothby’, which further heightens the focus on the child and of innocence by presenting her sitting, facing the viewer, but not engaging with us. Instead a melancholy pensive air is captured, as the child appears lost in thought. It is precisely this aspect of the painting which appears to have captured the hearts of the public, coupled with the knowledge that just one year after her portrait was painted Penelope Boothby took ill and died. Like the melancholy pleasure taken in a song of two ill-met lovers, the public seemed to wallow in the tragedy of Penelope Boothby and by the portrait that, at least, captured her in her youth.

By this point, industrialization was bringing more families to the cities from the country and among poor working class families children were viewed as just another part of the workforce. Any notion of a childhood was quickly dispelled by long hours amongst dangerous and dirty machinery. However, the same was not required among the rich and growing bourgeoisie where a new sentimentalism over an idea of childhood innocence was quickly taking shape. The degree of separation between the classes at this time is reflected in Reynolds’ capturing a period of life that many saw as fleeting and useless, further symbolised by the romantic pastoralism of the two scenes. The children of the rich have the freedom to play barefoot amongst the trees while those of the poor go to work in the factories. Reynolds portrays his young sitters, their attention held by something other than the viewer, as "having no class, no gender and no thoughts – of being socially, sexually and psychically innocent”[7] For once these children have nothing to prove, no estate or lineage to uphold as Reynolds allows them, perhaps for the first time, to be children – to be absorbed by childhood.

By the early nineteenth century many large museums and galleries had opened their doors to the lower classes as well as to the wealthy, making the viewing of art an acceptable past-time. Paintings such as ‘The Age of Innocence’ and ‘Portrait of Penelope Boothby’ had caught the imagination of the public and as the availability of cheaper mechanized printing technologies allowed multiple reprints to be made from a single woodblock etching, prints were sold within the gallery as well as multiple ‘bootlegs’. This affordability extended into cheap offset lithography and the possibility to print large batches of goods packaging as well as full colour advertisements.

As the availability of the technology of representation trickled down the classes, so too did the notion of innocence so that all people could afford the portrait of the little girl in ‘The Age of Innocence’. 323 different copies were made and reproduced of ‘The Age of Innocence’ at the time, reflecting the fervor for the representation of childhood and innocence in art that would eventually influence wider society in the way that it viewed its young.

By the late nineteenth century, Boothby fever had truly caught the publics imagination. In 1886 Charles Dodgson, otherwise known to the world as Lewis Carroll had photographed one of his child models, Xie Kitchen, dressed as Penelope Boothby. In 1880, William Luson Thomas, the publisher of the London newspaper The Graphic, commissioned John Everett Millais to paint a portrait of his grand niece, after she had attended a fancy-dress bell as Penelope Boothby. Luson included it as the centrefold for the Christmas edition. It was an immense success, and in 1881 was reproduced as a mezzotint, selling 600,000 copies within days.

At that time, nineteenth century English culture was experiencing something of an eighteenth century ‘mania’ characterized by a renewed enthusiasm for the paintings of Reynolds and Gainsborough and in the popularity of figures such as Boothby. The notion of childhood innocence, to be cherished, saved and protected against the evils of the world became synonymous with a desire for a return to a simpler time. The success of 'Cherry Ripe’ is reflected in what people saw as a nostalgic return to “an England for which the clock had stopped before progress had exacted its emotional, psychological, and social price”[8]. The popularity of Millais’s 'Cherry Ripe', with its evocation of Reynolds, a revered master of English art history, demonstrated the necessity, felt by many Victorian painters to reach into the past in order to forge reassuring images for the present.[9]

The metaphor that the romanticised child stood for was both political and poetic. The child was everything the sophisticated adult was not. Everything the rational man of the Enlightenment was not. “The child was figured as free of adult corruptions; not yet burdened with the weight of responsibility, mortality, and sexuality”[10] Many paintings, advertisements and forms of literature during the nineteenth century played on and exploited Victorians burgeoning and ever evolving ideas of innocence and sentiment, usually combined, that had barely existed in the earlier part of the century.

However, the fervor for nostalgia and sentimentality was being exploited within an abundance of advertisements that used the notion of innocence as a metaphor for cleanliness and thus the use and sale of soap. Along with his ‘Boy with Bubbles’, Millais’ 'Cherry Ripe' were used as early advertising campaigns for Pears soap, which did much for the dissemination of an idealized form of childhood and innocence into the home that would become so over-used that it would come to be known as ‘chocolate-box sentimentalism’.

[1] Higonnet, Anne, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood, Thames and Hudson, London, 1998, p.25
[2] Quoted in Cunningham, Hugh, The Invention Of Childhood, BBC Books, London, 2006, p.66
[3] Sloane, William, Childrens Books in England and America in the Seventeenth Century, New York, 1955, p.7
[4] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emile or On Education, tr. Allan Bloom, New York, Basic Books, 1979, p.33
[5] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract, tr. G.D.H. Cole, London, Dent, 1993, p. 45
[6] Quoted in: Bradley, Laurel. “From Eden to Empire: John Everett Millais’s Cherry Ripe” Victorian Studies 34 (1991), p. 182
[7] Higonnet, Anne, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood, Thames and Hudson, London, 1998, p.24
[8] Bradley, Laurel. “From Eden to Empire: John Everett Millais’s Cherry Ripe” Victorian Studies 34 (1991), p. 189
[9] ibid p.180
[10] Kincaid, James R, Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1998 p.15

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