Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column
Want to get your children interested in art? Well, start by telling them that they each own a share worth €11 in a vast collection which includes dozens of masterpieces by world-famous artists.
If this piques their interest, ask them if they’d like to go and see the valuable art that they own a share in.
The National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) and its collection are owned by the Irish people. We own it. And the NGI has long been a staple ingredient of the family trip in Dublin. Many of us recall being marched through the galleries by our own parents. We stood in front of paintings from other centuries and wondered what it was all about. You still see kids tugging at their parents’ sleeves, asking: “Why are we even here?” The immediate answer — “because it’s free and it’s raining” — isn’t going to help them engage with their culture heritage.
So here’s a different approach: Step one, impress upon them their ownership. The heritage assets of the NGI are worth €42,932,784 (2020). With property and financial assets, the total value is €56,477,004. Divide that by five million (the approximate population) and we get to individual ownership worth just over €11 each. Ballpark.
Step two is take them there and have some stories ready. The sort that kids can relate to. Preparation is key. The Visiting with Kids section of the NGI website has links to gallery tours, which you can listen to on your own device and headphones. Or, you can mug up on the art history and get extra parenting points. Turn each painting into a puzzle or a game. Most are filled with symbolism and objects that mean far more than we’d expect. In kids’ language that means we are talking about “secret messages”.
“It’s all about asking them questions,” says Joanne Drum, education officer with the NGI. She starts with The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, c.1854 by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870). At 31.5m x 51.3m, it’s the largest painting on display.
“The first question is how did we get that painting into the room?” she says. “The doors aren’t big enough and neither is the lift…” Then she explains that when it was removed for restoration, it was taken out of the frame and rolled up like a carpet.
“Ask them how can you tell who is on which side,” says Drum (native Irish or Norman invader). “Who is wearing armour? A lot of the native Irish look like they’re dead but there is only one drop of blood in the painting. Ask them to find it.”
The drop is in the bottom middle of the painting and easy for a child to spot.
“Children love unlocking symbols. Point out that Strongbow is standing on an overthrown Celtic cross. What does that mean?” More secret messages.
The Opening of the Sixth Seal, by Francis Danby (1828) at first glance seems to be a dark and dramatic depiction of a biblical scene in a thunderstorm. But Danby wanted to convey his own ‘secret message’.
Look closely at the standing figure in the foreground with broken shackles around his wrists. The artist was vehemently opposed to slavery, which was not abolished until 1833. At the time his anti-slavery stance wasn’t popular, but he got his message on slavery into that picture.
Play on familiarity. All children go to school. So try The Village School, c.1665, by Jan Steen (1626–1679). “The painting shows a Dutch school where the teacher is about to smack a little girl with a wooden spoon. There’s a crumpled piece of paper on the floor. Ask them what’s gone wrong.” She points to the teacher’s shabby clothes and a bottle that might have contained alcohol. Drunk on the job perhaps? Kids also love tales of lost treasure.
Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602) was discovered in 1990 concealed by layers of darkened varnish, in a house belonging to the Jesuit Fathers on Leeson Street, Dublin after being lost for 200 years.
Step three: At the end of your tour, offer your kids a deal. You’ll buy their €11 share of the collection, for €10. They can have the money right now, but they’ll lose their ownership of the artwork forever. If they won’t take the ready cash, then you’ve got them hooked.
But if they do take the tenner, for just a second, you will have become a dealer in internationally recognised masterpieces.