Portraits that keep it in the family

Family life in Britain over nearly 500 years is the theme of Norwich Castle's latest exhibition. IAN COLLINS says we're all part of the picture.

We are all born, we live and we die. Each of us is here a while only through the union of our parents, and most of us bequeath something of ourselves in children. Family matters, indeed.

This, at its most basic, is what it means to be human. But my how our notions of identity and humanity have changed over time.

The latest blockbuster Norwich Castle exhibition, Family Matters, backed by a series of events (see panel), looks at the depiction of kinship and all its associations across 470 years of British art.

The broad survey charted in paintings, sculptures, photographs and installations raises more questions than answers and leaves our own thoughts and experiences to complete the picture.

Which is all to the good since this show, jointly curated by Harriet Loffler and Andrew Moore – in Andrew's last venture in a three-decade career as keeper of art at the castle – is Norfolk's contribution to the Great British Art Debate.

This four-year collaboration between Norwich Castle, Tate and galleries in Newcastle and Sheffield has produced some cracking touring shows with handy pegs for celebrating the dazzling diversity of British art down the ages. And what fun when we find an excuse to mix it all up.

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Looking at how artists have shown the importance of family in private and public life, the display is divided into five themes – inheritance, childhood, couples and kinship, parenting and home.

Love gets more than a look in, thank goodness, but perhaps the most passionate part of the story concerns power (and the lack of it).

We kick off with a c1542 portrait of a five-year-old boy who is already being presented in the mighty image of his father. For this study, by an anonymous artist influenced by Hans Holbein the Younger, is of Edward, son of Henry VIII.

Those terrible Tudors! With notions of royalty all muddled with divinity, and clan ties strangled between Henry's six wives (not to mention his more numerous mistresses – since no one did), here may be the original British dys-functional family.

So a rather ironical starting point for our national family saga.

And what a fascinating ending – with Zineb Sedira's three-screen Mother Tongue video installation of 2002 in which the artist, her mother and daughter speak in different languages (Arabic, French and English). How can they understand each other?

And how can we communicate and cohabit now that we live in the most culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse country on this planet? Broken society or ever-widening family?

As if there wasn't already and always a chasm between the generations. Two featured pictures from the 1970s most memorably bridge that yawning divide – Melanie and Me Swimming by Norfolk's Michael Andrews (father guides daughter across dark water), and David Hockney's poignant My Parents (proud and loyal meets distracted and bewildered).

Then there is the distance between husband and wife – evident even in, or most especially in, Stanley Spencer's astonishing Nude (Portrait of Patricia Preece) of 1936-7.

One of the most naked portraits ever painted, as well as the key to the later career of Lucian Freud, this study re-veals an obsession with a wife who returned to her lesbian partner after a disastrous honeymoon.

And what about our traditional dream of solace behind rose-fringed cottage doorways in a time of social and eco-nomic uncertainty? Alice Maher's 1995 House of Thorns provides a prickly comment.

But back to our brutal beginning – Edward VI would be dead at 16, after a brief reign of fanatical Protestantism which gave way to a briefer spell of fanatical Catholicism under his half-sister Mary.

Good Queen Bess – Elizabeth I – would sanction the killing of a similar number of heretics in her 45-year reign as half-sister Mary did in her five.

Not that the succeeding Stuarts were big on clan charm. Sir Peter Lely presents Queen Mary, when still Duchess of York, in the guise of Diana, goddess of hunting – a darkly comic idea for family matters as things turned out.

For this Protestant huntress crossed from Holland with husband William and sister Anne to oust her Catholic father from the British throne. Hence the killing title of a recent biography of the two princesses – Ungrateful Daughters.

After all that deadly power play, what brief relief to escape to the civilised and satirised Georgian era, where Johann Zoffany shows us David Garrick as Sir John Brute in Vanbrugh's The Provok'd Wife. But look closer. Mi-sogyny is alive and kicking. Garrick's drunken character is mimicking and mocking a harpy called Boudicca – a symbol of the nagging wife. What a drag.

Those who think of East Anglia as a historic haven will find further comfort here. Joseph Clover's four generations of the Harvey family of Norwich, 26 figures living and dead, look like the cast of an amiable Georgian soap opera.

Thomas Gainsborough's tender portrait of his daughters Margaret and Mary chasing a butterfly remains a perfect study of innocence (even when you know that the later lives of those poor girls were blighted, probably by con-genital syphilis).

And a gem of 1786 by Henry Walton, showing Sir Robert and Lady Buxton and their daughter Anne, could stand as a snapshot of enlightenment.

Just three years before the French Revolution, and the oiling of the guillotine just across the water, this well-to-do family seems to be revelling in a timeless model of domestic bliss. Note the Farrow and Ball colour scheme and the air of relaxed refinement.

What we don't see is the large band of servants needed to support this little family group in its luxury and leisure.

But domestic staff do make a hilarious appearance in this exhibition, near the very end of their long servitude 150 years later.

Bill Brandt, the left-wing photographer, and refugee from Nazi Germany, snapped Parlourmaid and Under Par-lourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner in the house of his wealthy uncle.

Brandt's sympathies were unfailingly with his working-class subjects, but in this instance I feel for the unseen employers/exploiters also.

The parlourmaid's look of twisted malice suggests that something nasty has just been added to the soup.

The tyranny of domestic servitude – a million miles from silly old Downton Abbey – worked both ways.

But so do Family Values. When the then Mrs Thatcher summed up her political philosophy thus, more than 30 years ago, half the nation cheered while the other half winced.

And now I have only scratched the surface of this excellent exhibition. Best to go along and see for yourself – and, more than likely, to see yourself also.

n Family Matters: The Family in British Art runs at Norwich Castle until January 8, museum admission (including exhibition) �6.60 (�5.60 cons), �4.80 children; exhibition only admission �3.50 (�3 cons), �2.60 children, 01603 495897, www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk


Family Monuments

Norwich Castle, October 29, 2pm, free, pre-book on 01603 439625

Join UEA historian Victor Morgan on a guided tour of family monuments in city centre churches.

Family Matters

Strangers' Hall, October 29, museum admission price, pre-book on 01603 495897

Have your family portrait at the Tudor feast in the Great Hall at Stranger's Hall. They will supply costumes - just take your camera.

Deception and Disguise: Dressing the British Family

Norwich Castle, November 8, 12.30pm, museum admission price

Lunchtime talk by Rosy Gray, assistant curator at Norwich Castle.

Van Dyck, Lely and the Role of the Principal Painter

Norwich Castle, November 10, 6pm-8pm, �12 including glass of wine and private view, pre-book on 01603 495897

Special evening lecture linked to the exhibition by Diane Dethloff in association with the Art Fund.

Artists as Parents

Norwich Castle, November 12, 2pm-3pm, exhibition admission price

Artists Townley and Bradby present an illustrated talk about juggling artistic creativity, earning a living and rais-ing a family.

Looking One's Best For Prosperity

Norwich Castle, November 15, 12.30pm, museum admission price

Lunchtime talk by Charlotte Crawley, director of the East Anglia Art Fund.

Facts & Fictions: A Short History Photographing the Family

Norwich Castle, December 6, 12.30pm, museum admission price

Lunchtime talk by Martin Barnes, Castle Museum senior curator of photographs.

Does The Art Of The Past Say Anything About The World Today?

Norwich Castle, December 7, 11am-12pm, exhibition admission price

Join a lively conversation with museum staff, Rosy Gray and Anna Green.