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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Art Training in the Nursery.

By Emeline Petrie Steinthal.
Volume 1, 1890/91, pg. 33


I have been asked of late by many mothers "How must we teach our children drawing?" One lady remarked, "I don't know how it is; but my children used to be so fond of drawing, and now they all dislike it." When enquiries were made as to the methods of teaching, the answer was, "Oh, of course they have gone, and are still going, through the free-hand course. "Do they ever draw from objects, or from nature?" I ask. "Oh dear no; the teacher will not allow vagaries, as she calls them." The object of this paper is to offer to parents a few suggestions, founded on experience, which may throw light on this subject.

To begin with, the surroundings of a child ought to be beautiful: the nursery ought to be one of the most harmonious in the house, for a child should be accustomed to see and appreciate only good colours from the first, and it was never so easy to carry this principle into effect as now, when we can obtain for our walls such beautiful and inexpensive designs as those of Walter Crane, and others.

I met during the course of last summer an interesting family--a mother and her three sons. Two of the boys, aged eleven and thirteen respectively, have a great desire to become artists. The worked from nature every day during the holidays, and sent heir sketches every week to their master, a pupil of Mr. Ruskin's. Their mother told me that she attributed the taste for art the boys manifested almost entirely to the pretty nursery they had as children. They had a paper designed by Walter Crane on the walls. Round the room went two shelves about a foot and a-half from each other. Here and there hung a little curtain, behind which lay all the ordinary things belonging to children--boots, brushes, combs, &c. In the open spaces the toys were placed, and each boy had charge of his own division. They had very pretty crockery, and this was kept, when not in use, in an old cupboard with glass doors, placed rather high on the wall. The pictures were few, but excellent in form and colour. I certainly have not met many boys who had such a keen sense and appreciation of beauty in every guise and form.

Most of the pictures in the illustrated Christmas papers were excellent for nursery walls. Some of Walter Cranse's earlier books arranged along the wall have a very pretty effect. As members of the Arundel Society, we receive each year two copies of old masters' work. These we find are the greatest educational value to the children. The last one received, "The Betrothal of the Virgin," by Lorenzo di Viterlo, gave great pleasure to the little ones. One little mite of three, who has often heard us speak of colour, said about it the other day, "Believe that purple goes very well with that yellow.: The children in this way, unconsciously, get also a very good idea of the various schools.

But all parents will not care about old masters, and for these there is no lack of beauty and form in many of the coloured children's picture books now produced. We owe much to Millais, Briton Riviere, Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, and other labourers in this field. Few things do more to foster art in the nursery than illustrations in books, provided that these are few and well chosen. It would be invidious to single out any when so many are good, but I should like to suggest the drawings of Gordon Browne, Walter Crane's earlier books, and his Masque of Flora, Harriet Bennett, Alice Havers. Cassells have produced an excellent Sunday scrap-book.

I am sorry the colours used in our kindergarten lessons are not better chosen. A set of paper slips for plaiting was received the other day which could not possibly be used. No two colours were complements, and the effect of each combination was hideous. Generally, when there is a demand, there is a supply; so if we mothers constantly demanded better colours, we should probably get them.

Might I suggest that a few casts in the nursery give great pleasure to children, and help them very considerably in their art education? The Mask of Dante, Michel Angelo's Madonna, Venus Milo, and Donetello's baby are very inexpensive, and most beautiful.

To consider now the children themselves. There is hardly any child whose first impulse is not to scribble on the wall or on some scrap of paper. It is almost the first thing he wishes to do, and there is hardly a parent who has not scolded him for it. You can develop a child's faculties better by means of drawing than even by book; and no other study will so quicken his perceptions. Children should learn to draw as they learn to write. The great point is that they should be encouraged, but not flattered. With no help and encouragement the child gradually loses his desier to draw, and gets more interested in other things, until the wish to draw again breaks out; and then, double effort is required to recover what might have been gained insensibly. Most children see straight until they are spoiled by bad teaching. I have taught modelling to factory lads and to public schoolboys; and in all cases the boys who have never had sixpence spent on their art education have surpassed the boys who have been learning for years. The mill boys looked at the object they were copying, and so carefully took in the relation of one line to another that they very seldom had to undo their work. This theory was borne out the other day by the master of a large school of art in one of our manufacturing towns. He said that his experience was similar, and that in his evening classes the mill boys were far more brilliant and correct than the pupil-teachers.

There are two great points that must be remembered if we wish to make our system of art teaching in the nursery successful. The first is, always keep the children interested. Next, let us understand that drawing is not only learnt with a pencil and a piece of paper. To illustrate the first point, let us take the case of children brought up on freehand copies alone, who, strangely, do not become the Raphaels and Milais their mothers expected; nor, what is sadder still, do they even wish to become artists. Don't let the poor little fingers get stiff in trying to turn the curves which convey no meaning to their tired eyes and still more tired brains, weary with the vain effort to make this side exactly match that side. How many parents could sit down and draw a tea-cup placed before them? An orange or apple, again, is a very favourite mode of torture adopted by some teachers. And yet we expect little mites of six and seven to do this, and then wonder why they are not fonder of drawing! Give the child a large sheet of paper and a good thick pencil or a piece of charcoal, and ask him to draw for you his cart and horse, or his stable, with the cart in it, or his boat, with the sail up, or any toy he may happen to have near him. Let the girls do the same with their dolls, &c. Their delight, when they find that they really can make something which looks rather like their pet possessions will show what I mean by being interested. All children like colours, and nothing pleases them so much as a paint box. Let them go on to paint their own drawings, and if they really get the yellow of the cart or the piebald of the pondy, their delight is boundless. And these children will grow up with a sense of form and colour which will beautify their lives, for Nature has many secrets to reveal to the instructed eye. Do not let children paint in reading books. It may lead to a disrespect for books, and children should be taught to handle these with reverent care.

To turn now to our second point, that drawing is not to be learned by means of pencil and paper only. The chief value of drawing is that it trains the eye to see things as they are, and this training can be given in many ways. When, for instance, a child is old enough, it is intense happiness to him to sit by his mother's side, and with a pair of scissors cut out birds, horses, boys, girls, birds, &c., and very often the mother is surprised at the agility and cleverness of the child. That child has had an excellent lesson in imagination and form without knowing it. Again, all children love to play with dough, and make nests, shoes, birds, &c. A little clay, which can be obtained for a very small sum, will amuse children through many long winter afternoons and wet days, and all the time they are being trained. They are learning "drawing in clay," and I believe that in future ages our descendants will wonder why we did not teach modelling to every child, and that any kind of art education could have existed without it.

Another art which is coming to the fore, and which can be easily executed by little fingers, is bent-iron work. It teaches the making of curves and beautiful lines just as surely, and far more pleasantly, than any free-hand lessons. I have before me now several capital specimens of this work done by village boys of from nine to fourteen years of age.

Do not let us imagine that all our children will become artists in the future. Do not let us expect to produce a Leighton or a Herkomer; but of this we may be sure, that children who are trained well in the nursery will, as they grow older, see more of beauty in the beautiful world, even where they do not take up art as a profession, than will those less fortunate children whose early art training is left to take care of itself. An atmosphere of refinement and art culture must exercise a beneficent effect on the characters of our children of to-day, and of the men and women of the future.

Emeline Petrie Steinthal.



Typed by Jane Conrad, August 2015