Art for Under 5s – Turner and the Sea

fishermen upon a lee-shore in squally weather

Impression of ‘Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner. 2014. 

A couple of months ago I took the Boy to the “Turner and the Sea” exhibition at the Royal Maritime Museum as a dry-run for gallery visits during my sabbatical. The experience was a good one and so, in the first art-related post of my sabbatical, I’m going to share my five tips for visiting exhibitions with under 5s.

1) Keep it simple, but don’t patronise.

Small children tend to be taken to art galleries for one of two reasons. Either a parent wants to go and can’t find a babysitter, or they see it as important to their child’s education that they have a good grounding in art history before they go to school. In the case of the Boy, it’s a bit of both and our trips tend to be a mixture of keeping him engaged and keeping him amused.

Now, I’ll admit that my expectations are probably higher than they should be for the level of engagement a three year old can have with an Old Master, but we’ve always tried to encourage the Boy to have opinions about things, especially art and music. And the questions we should all be asking ourselves about art and culture are fairly easy for children to answer. Do you like it? How does it make you feel? What’s happening? What does it remind you of?

Philip James de Loutherbourg - The Shipwreck 1793 - detail Painting

The Boy picked out this detail as his favourite part of the exhibition. The wreckers in Philip James de Loutherbourg’s ‘The Shipwreck’ look like pirates. Apparently.

What I’m not such a great fan of are activities for children which have nothing to do with the art, like trails to find stuffed toys hidden around stately homes. These do seem to suggest that visits are more about keeping children amused while you look around than helping them engage with what you’re looking at.

When faced with a 2 meter wide canvas there is a limit to how much discussion you can have about technique or the historical importance of the work. But you can talk about the action and the colour. How do the different parts of the painting elicit different responses? The Turner and the Sea exhibition included works by other artists so we tried to guess whether each one was a similar style to the rest of the exhibition or if it looked different.

Of course, it was a particular high-point of the visit when the Boy correctly identified which painting was a Turner and which wasn’t ‘because of the sea’. I’m not sure it was a repeatable exercise, so I didn’t ruin the illusion by trying it again.

A First rate Man-of-War driven onto a reef of rocks, floundering in a gale

‘A First rate Man-of-War driven onto a reef of rocks, floundering in a gale’ by George Philip Reinagle. Not a Turner!

2) Find non-marking ways of sketching.

Making sketches of what you’re looking at is arguably the best way to appreciate what is in front of you. Add this to children’s natural love of drawing and you have a great way to encourage their inner artist while being able to look yourself. Having said this, gallery staff tend to look very worried if a small child is wandering around priceless works of art with a crayon, so I’ve loaded up my iPad mini with a drawing pad app which cost about £2.50 but has saved hundreds of pounds of babysitting fees over the past two years. It also makes the whole process of moving around a gallery much easier if you don’t have to worry about collecting up all the pencils.

Be prepared for adoring comments though. If you have a small child sitting sketching in front of a early Turner then expect comments about “a young Turner”. Not all comments are straightforward though. One lady looked at the Boy’s screen and asked “Are you drawing a sunflower?” “No” came the reply, “I’m copying this Turner”. And this was his interpretation of “Wreck of a Transport Ship”. You can see her confusion, but then he’s always preferred more abstract art than me.

Wreck of a Transport Ship

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ c.1810Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ c.1810

3) See the good stuff first.

Exhibitions are usually arranged in a linear order, often beginning with an artist’s earlier and less developed work. You want to see the good stuff before children get impatient, so don’t feel bad about missing out the first few rooms.

I find that impatience comes in three phases:

  • Stage one: I’m enjoying this.
  • Stage two: I’m bored with art but happy to do something else while you look around.
  • Stage three: We have to leave right now!

With Turner we had about forty minutes of stage one (with drawing on the iPad), fifteen minutes of stage two (with world map puzzles, again on the iPad) and it took five minutes of stage three to get out of the exhibition. Strangely, as soon as we got into the gift shop we reset to stage one.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’ 1823-4

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’ which I was enjoying as we moved from stage one to stage two.

Joseph Mallord William Turner – ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up’. Formerly the nation’s favourite painting, which I had to go back to the National Gallery and see alone, as we had entered stage three before we found it in Turner and the Sea.

If you do some research before you leave home, you can generally find out what’s going to be where in the exhibition. This also gives you the opportunity to familiarise your child with the most well-known works in advance, so finding them is part of the discovery.

4) Queue-jump if possible.

I’m not suggesting pushing in but, if you book in advance, many places offer timed tickets which reduce the amount of queuing at the door. Standing in a queue to get into the exhibition cuts into your stage one time, as I found at the Natural History Museum to my cost.

5) Don’t worry about other people.

Some artists seem to inspire a muted awe in their viewers, and Turner is the apotheosis of this reverential appreciation. But people who visit art galleries, and especially those who pay for exhibitions, are generally keen that young people learn to appreciate art for themselves, so they would rather see children engaged and talking than absent or silent. Other visitors to a gallery will be using the audio-guide headphones, so can’t hear you anyway.

If you’re at stage one of a visit then most other visitors are going to be charmed, rather then annoyed by a small person commenting on the exhibition. If you’re at stage two then you may need to have headphones on the iPad. If you’re at stage three then the person who is most likely to be disturbed by your child is you, so cut your losses and head for the gift shop.

  • What have you learnt from your own trips out with small children?
  • What have you seen working and not working when you’ve encountered other people’s children in galleries?

Sun Rising Through Vapour

Impression of ‘Sun Rising Through Vapour’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Evening harbour scene with boats being unloaded and spectators

Impression of ‘Habour Scene with Boats being unloaded and Spectators’ by Claude-Joseph Vernet.

One thought on “Art for Under 5s – Turner and the Sea

  1. Jon,
    I liked both sets of pictures. The master pieces and the ones by Turner! I think I go through those stages at certain events as well.

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