The art of expanding young minds

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

I COME from a family of artists.

They include a painter, an architect, three graphic designers, a fashion designer, a product designer, an interior designer and a potter.

And if you are willing to expand your idea of what encompasses the world of art, you could also throw in three writers, an actor, an actress and a comedian.

I hope my own children will demonstrate a creative streak as they grow up – a knack for writing poetry, a desire to tread the boards, an appreciation of art, perhaps.

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But recently I have been wondering if this type of talent is in your genes or if it’s actually something you learn to love through exposure.

A study earlier this year found that one in five children in the UK are “culture-starved”.

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A fifth have never been inside an art gallery, a quarter have never been to see a show in a theatre and a further 17% have never been taken to a museum.

Half of parents questioned said they make little effort to educate their children on culture or history, relying on schools to do so instead.

And I have to say I find this quite horrifying.

After all, even the best teacher in the world cannot tell you what it feels like to be inside the Tower of London, read Macbeth and stir up the emotion of the stage, and cannot properly describe the enormity of Damien Hirst’s Shark. Nothing beats experiencing something for yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, my daughter’s school is doing a sterling job this term teaching her about the history of London – and in particular events during the Tudor reign.

She is quite simply brimming with excitement at the end of each school day, ready to tell me the latest gem she has picked up in class.

“In the olden days they used to cut people’s heads off,” was one.

“In the olden days they didn’t have toilets and used to throw their wee and poo into the streets,” was another.

But, despite only remembering the most revolting anecdotes, she has clearly reached that golden age of childhood where she is soaking up knowledge like a sponge.

So now is the time to capitalise on that learning at home to prevent her from becoming one of those kids more familiar with McDonald’s than Madame Tussauds, Mister Maker than Monet and Alton Towers than Tower Bridge.

Last week we had a bit of a cultural splurge.

We started off with a performance of Alice in Wonderland, a musical pantomime production at the Felixstowe Spa Pavilion.

All went well and the children were mesmerized by the rock ’n’ roll soundtrack and the beautiful, multi-coloured costumes.

And then the Queen of Hearts appeared.

“Off with their heads!” she declared and in response my daughter let out an almighty howl.

“She’s got an axe,” she screamed, desperately trying to escape from her seat. “I thought they only cut off heads in the olden days.”

I tried to calm her down but eventually had to retreat to the back of the theatre, where my daughter watched the rest of the show through the gaps in her fingers.

“It’s acting,” I whispered in her ear. “They are just pretending. You would be good at that. You’re a bit of a drama queen.”

She looked at me. “I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not,” she said crossly.

Theatre ticked off, we headed off for a weekend in London.

We had tickets to the Tate Modern and were keen to take the kids to the Bigger Splash exhibition – a collection of work including some by Jackson Pollock and David Hockney.

Both are artists I love and they do big, bold and colourful, so I was hoping my children would be impressed and excited by what they saw.

The exhibition combines paintings with performance work, so starts with Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A, alongside Hans Namuth’s film of the artist at work – flicking, dripping and splattering paint onto a vast canvas on the floor beneath him.

Other pieces of work include Shooting Picture, where artist Niki de Saint Phalle embedded sacs of paint within layers of plaster against a board and fired a rifle at them.

My children were very good. There was no shouting, touching the work or running around.

In fact, they seemed transfixed.

Afterwards I asked them what they thought.

“Messy,” said my two-year-old son. “I liked it.”

My daughter looked thoughtful.

“Well,” she said. “I only have two things to say.”

I waited, hoping for something profound.

“Firstly, I’m not sure why anyone would want to have scribbly pictures like those on their walls,” she said. “And secondly, I’m not sure why everyone thinks it’s so brilliant.”

“Oh,” I replied.

“I could do better with my eyes closed,” she added.

When we got home, she did exactly that. And, to give her some credit, the results were rather good. Maybe artistic talent is in the genes after all.

Please email me at or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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