Art History in a Primary School | Arts Week Project

Two years ago, in the middle of a very hot June and during national Arts Week, the Association for Art History’s Deputy CEO, Claire Davies, spent two days at Robert Fitzroy Academy (RFA) primary school in Croydon.

The mission was to make art history matter. The ingredients and method were: Take one picture, combine with 400 kids, 18 teachers, 1 artist , Include lots of wool, 3 looms, 1 boat structure. Mix together (at 32 degrees) in a school hall watch develop over 2 days.

Claire was helping artist (and former art teacher) Elizabeth Esson with her national Arts Week project which focused on the National Gallery’s ‘Take One Picture’ scheme for schools. This annual scheme, as the title suggests, takes one picture from the gallery collection and makes it the focus of resources for schools nationwide. The gallery then showcases some of the cross-curricular responses and works by pupils.

The picture that year was a 15th century fresco, ‘Penelope and her Suitors’ by Pintoricchio. This painting informed all aspects of interdisciplinary teaching and learning throughout Arts Week at RFA. Over the two days Claire (who had been an artist educator) and Elizabeth worked with all pupils, from Reception to Year 4. Using the painting as the starting point, pupils were encouraged to look at the painting, think about what story it might be telling; who the characters might be, where they might be, what were they doing? Some said that Penelope was a princess or queen because of her fancy dress, either way she looked rich. One pupil thought she was trying to fix her broken ladder. No one really knew what a suitor was.

Elizabeth explained that Penelope was weaving and that this is what we were going to do too. Pupils were each given paper plate looms to make circular weaves on, as well as working in groups on larger looms with selections of ribbons, wool and other materials. The final work would be a wall-mounted ‘loom galleon’ referencing the ship in the painting, which would be created from all the woven bits and pieces. Some of the boys thought that weaving was too ‘girly’ but turned out to be brilliant at it and wanted to do more and started asking more questions about the painting such as when it was made, and why someone would do a painting like that. Unsurprisingly many of the pupils were not familiar with museums or galleries and had not come across a painting like this, nor knew where, or that you could, go and see paintings like this, for free, if you wanted to.

At the end of two very warm, very creative and very chatty days with 200 young people many new skills were learned, confidence around experimenting and trying again was boosted, and many interesting conversations were had about how and why art and art’s history can help you think and see differently.