In the House of My father, 1996-7, Donald Rodney © Tate, London 2012
Family Matters charts the depiction of the family over 400 years, exploring changing ideas and attitudes, and asking what role notions of family have played in shaping our national and cultural identity. The exhibition is organised around five themes, placing historical and contemporary works side by side.
Inheritance looks at the importance of family history, the need to ‘carry on the family line’. This can be through inheriting lands and titles, or may involve passing on skills, stories or family features. In this section of the exhibition we see work such as Alison Jackson’s photograph ‘William as King’, and Joseph Clover’s extraordinary multiple portrait ‘The Harvey Family of Norwich’, capturing 26 members of the Harvey family across four generations.
Childhood examines how caring for children has always been a defining responsibility of the family, and looks at how artists have presented the changing role of children within the family over time. Highlights include Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly’, Sir Joshua Reynolds’ ‘The Age of Innocence’, and ‘Boy with Coral’, a 17th century painting by an unknown artist which is probably one of the earliest British portraits to show a child with a baby walker.
Parenting reflects on how the experience of being a parent or child may be what many of us imagine when we think about our own ideas of family. The beauty and intensity of the relationship between mother and child is demonstrated in ‘Devotion’ by Julia Margaret Cameron; Michael Andrews looks at ideas of nurture and trust in ‘Melanie and Me Swimming’, and Mary Kelly analyses the development of her son using scientific methods in her unusual ‘Post-partum Document’.
Couples and Kinship describes the relationships between partners, lovers and siblings. The special relationship of couples might be intimate and private, but also could be a public display of affection. The relationship between siblings and cousins enables us to explore different ways of social interaction, which then extend beyond the family. The Laing’s ‘The Lovers’ by Stanley Spencer is shown alongside John Singer Sargent’s magnificent painting of ‘The Misses Vickers’. It also features Alexander Carse’s ‘The Penny Wedding’, on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland, and the only venue on the exhibition tour to include this boisterous and exuberant painting.
Finally, Home asks us to think about what this place means to us. Ideas of house and home are bound up with concepts of what makes a family, but home is often a place of contrasts. Somewhere we can retreat to and feel safe, it can also be a place of fear and uncertainty. Artists exploring these concepts include Alice Maher, with her fascinating sculpture ‘House of Thorns’, Bill Brandt in a series of photographs taken during the 1930s, and Paula Rego’s monumental drawing ‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’.
In the final gallery of this large exhibition, selected artworks from all the sections have been brought together with activities and materials to explore the themes in a different way. Visitors are invited to add their own experiences and views to the display. Members of the public are also invited to join the online debate at www.greatbritishartdebate.org .
This is the latest of the ‘Great British Art Debate’ exhibitions.The GBAD Partnership, now in its fourth year, is a collaboration between Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Museums & Archives, Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service and Museums Sheffield, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Council of England's Renaissance programme. Supported in Newcastle by the Exhibition Partners of the Laing Art Gallery. Curated by Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, the Family Matters exhibition includes works of art from all four partner galleries, as well as a number of national and regional collections.
Curious to what our visitors and staff have been saying about the exhibition? Have a read of one of our blog posts by clicking here.
Family Matters has been shown at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, and the Millennium Galleries at Sheffield, and after its display at the Laing will also travel (in a reduced version) to Tate Britain.