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  • Writer's picturecolinpantall

Sofa Portraits and The Age of Innocence

There was a great exhibition at Bath’s Holborne Museum a few years back titled Age of Innocence. It featured 18th century paintings of childhood. Wrapped up within those paintings were age, gender, landscape, infant mortality, and the idea of the ‘romantic childhood’.

The title of the exhibition came from The Age of Innocence (dated to 1788) by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The Age of Innocence portrays a young girl, who may or may not be called Offy, in a white dress sitting in profile to the viewer. The landscape looms behind her, allowing the child to gain prominence, yet at the same time seem ‘reassuringly small’. The landscape emphasises the girl’s childhood and innocence. She may be the major figure in the painting, yet at the same time the lack of detail in the background, the undifferentiated, almost impressionistic trees and foliage, envelop and surround her.

Offy is alone in a world of which she is not really part, a world that is both threatening and somehow alien, a world that, given infant mortality rates of the time is redolent with death. In keeping with Rousseau’s ideas of childhood freedom, the girl is protected from the harmful experience of the adult world by her childlike innocence.

Or, depending on who you want to believe, Offy is already part of a dark and foreboding world in which innocence is only a temporary defence against the inevitable corruption of adulthood.

Offy may be innocent, but she exists in an adult world. She does not understand this world, cannot see this world and has no control over it. And this is where her innocence comes from - an innocence of corruption, death and, by implication, her own mortality. Innocence for Reynolds, as it was for Jacques Rousseau or indeed Eve in the Garden of Eden, is a bubble of unknowingness.

I always look at this painting and wonder at the ways in which the girl has been limited both psychologically and physically. She barely has any legs in the painting, and the ones she does have end up in little twisted toes. She is made immobile for the world.

Who the girl is in the painting is not known, nor is her age. Martin Postle said she was about 4 years old. Which is the same age as Lewis Cage, (‘The Young Cricketer’) by Francis Cotes. The difference in representation is something that goes beyond age and still cuts deep into how we see and treat children, and girls in particular, today.

Painted in 1768, it shows a young boy standing on an illuminated cricket wicket. A ball lies in front of improvised bails, while the boy stands with his left foot facing forward, the sock slightly unrolled. His left hand is on his hip, his right hand holds a elegantly curved cricket bat. The boy is set in a rural landscape , all the better for the trend towards ‘...the evocation of sensibility’ says Postle and the low viewpoint and full framing of the boy give him ‘... a heroic quality’.

Lewis Cage (‘The Young Cricketer’)

The boy’s firm placing in a natural environment was influenced by the publication of Rousseau’s Emile in 1763. In this book, Rousseau ‘...rejected conventional academic learning in favour of a simple, outdoor upbringing’. So we see Lewis Cage standing on his light-cast wicket. But that environment is limited to the wicket on which he stands - a wicket that symbolises childhood. He is detached from the adult world by a large cast of shadow - symbolising adolescence perhaps - and the world beyond is natural and, compared to the landscape in The Age of Innocence, welcoming - part of a romanticised trend to portray the English countryside as an innocent, idyllic environment in which to grow up (according to Steward). There are trees, meadow and a bright blue sky dotted with clouds lit up by the setting sun. Lewis Cage has control over his world and, it is one separated from that of the adult world. The difference is that though Cage is separated from the adult world, he is also part of it - his is not an imaginary world, but a corner of adulthood over which he has control. He knows what he will join and what the future will hold. It is all there in the landscape behind him and once he has manouevred through the darkness of adolescence, he will be part of it. He even knows that the future is bright. In the right hand corner a pathway leads over a hill to a horizon filled with golden light.

It's a very different portrayal of childhood to that of the young girl. Her world is closed. His world is open. Her body is closed. His body is open. And the sad thing is these gendered worlds of childhood are still apparent in the different ways in which boys and girls are treated, represented, and allowed to be.

That is a part of what Sofa Portraits is about. The first picture in the book is of Isabel enveloped by her tutu, a marker in that sofa which we can compare to the landscape of limitations we see in Reynolds painting.

That picture was made when Isabel was 4, just as she started school full time (with a wonderful teacher called Lucy La-La who was the opposite of limiting). That physical freedom of that age is apparent in the pictures that follow, in the way in which she stretches her legs and fills the sofa, in the worlds she drifts off to. She fills a physical and psychological space that is more akin to that of the Young Cricketer, although in this image there is definitely a darkness to the world, one of which she is aware.

That physicality gets more constrained as the series progresses as her teachers change, as creativity and imagination leaves the curriculum. The worlds her mind inhabit become more limited as she gets older. Perhaps it’s simply the process of getting older; by the end of the book, in 2007 when we leave that flat and that sofa behind, she is 6 years old – a very different age to a 4 year old. But she is more constrained in every way, ennui has entered her world, there is less freedom of movement, at times she sits as though she is at a desk.

In July this year, Isabel (who is 21 now), looked over the pictures and did her edit. One of the pictures she selected was the final picture of her in the book. This is what she said.

“This is one of the last ones, one where I'm really different from the other pictures. I remember that dress. It’s a leotard. I wore it around the house all the time. But this is boredom. This is actually one of the few boredom ones. I just look a bit like bored, I’m done with life. I was realizing the reality of life. I was six years old and I’m thinking, oh no, I’m going to have to get a job soon. I’ve got two more years and then I'm being sent down the coal mine. The weight of life was upon me.”


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