FAMILY life is not always a bed of roses and a major new exhibition opening today shows that has always been the case.
Family Matters: the Family in British Art, at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, features famous – and some less famous – paintings and other images from across the centuries.
Among the artists represented, living and dead, are David Hockney, Thomas Gainsborough, Johann Zoffany, John Singer Sargent and Turner Prize-winner Gillian Wearing.Related content
It is the last in the Great British Art Debate series of exhibitions organised in partnership by Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and museum services in Norfolk and Sheffield.
It could also prove to be the biggest attraction and the biggest talking point by the time it closes on September 2.
“One of the nice things about the exhibition is that it covers such a wide range of work,” said Marie-Thérèse Mayne, assistant keeper of fine and decorative art at the Laing.
“There is work dating from the 16th Century and also work that was done just two or three years ago. There’s something everyone can relate to in one way or another.”
The exhibition, in three galleries at the Laing, is arranged according to the themes of Childhood, Inheritance, Parenting, Couples & Kinship and Home.
Plenty of the exhibits will seduce and surprise while others will strike a note of depressing familiarity. Blood is thicker than water, they say, but tears and tantrums are part of the deal.
Gainsborough’s painting entitled The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, from about 1756, is sweet but Ms Mayne offered a sobering interpretation.
“Mary and Margaret were Gainsborough’s daughters but Mary was named after another daughter who had died.
“We think that’s why he painted them chasing a butterfly which represents the soul of his lost daughter.”
It isn’t the only painting in the exhibition reminding us that in centuries past it was anything but uncommon for children not to reach adulthood. The Hon Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with their daughter Barbara Anne was painted by the artist Pompeo Batoni in 1749.
The couple had gone to Rome to grieve after Barbara Anne died of tuberculosis and they commissioned a family portrait, offering a miniature of their lost daughter for the artist to work from.
In the resulting painting, of course, only the daughter appears healthy and happy. It will tug at your heart-strings.
On this page you see Joseph Clover’s 1820s collage-like portrait of the Harvey family of Norwich, 26 of them spanning four generations.
The smaller photo shows Ivy Smith’s painting The Smith Family Golden Wedding, dating from 1986.
If the various family members look a little disunited, that’s not too surprising. The artist “did a Clover”, sketching all her subjects separately and then putting them around a dining table.
Hockney painted his parents. Only his mother was was co-operating, evidently.