Wild Boy at the Government Art Collection

24 August 2015

umbraco.MacroEngines.PropertyResult Chantal Condron

By Chantal Condron, Curator of Information and Research (Modern and Contemporary)

This summer at the Government Art Collection (GAC), a collaboration with children's author Rob Lloyd Jones and Pop Up Projects, a not-for-profit children's literature agency, culminated in school workshops based around an intriguing Victorian fictional character. Chantal Condron, Curator of Information and Research tells us how it all began …

Early in 2015, Pop Up Projects invited London-based museums and galleries to host and actively participate in school workshops that linked to selected new children’s books. One of these was Rob Lloyd Jones’s Victorian-themed novel Wild Boy (2013), the themes, characters and setting of which chimed perfectly with some of the historical and modern works in the GAC.

As part of an ongoing commitment to engage new, and especially young audiences, with works in the Collection, this was the third year that I had collaborated with schools on the development of literacy workshops. These offer the chance for works of art that are waiting to be selected by ministers and ambassadors, to link to the narrative themes of a book. Acting as engaging visual tools, they encourage and support children's spoken, written and visual literacy skills. A project like this gives children direct contact with a museum collection, an experience that is often a first for many. Excitingly for us, the Pop Up collaboration was also the first author-led education project at the GAC.

Chantal Talking About Wild Boy At The Artwork

Chantal talking about Wild Boy at the artwork © Crown Copyright

After discussions with Gemma Holland, Pop Up’s Education Manager, I started planning content for an interactive workshop and gallery display linked to Rob’s book. Gemma paired the GAC up with Grafton Primary School in Islington, whose Year 6 children had begun reading the book earlier that term. The central character of the novel is Wild Boy, an orphaned boy covered in hair who is raised to perform as a ‘freak’ in a travelling circus. The fascination surrounding his life, and his overriding desire to escape and ‘be normal’ immediately drew me to Side Show, a set of 1974–75 prints in the GAC by British artist, Peter Blake. Based on portrait photographs of Victorian circus performers, these figures offered great scope to spark a discussion about what it might have felt like to be visually different in a society that had no qualms at judging people as freaks. What were modern-day equivalents of Victorian freak shows? TV shows like Big Brother or Britain’s Got Talent? Or even the many weird and wonderful videos found on youtube?

2 Rob Explaining The Artwork Behind Wild Boy

Rob explaining the artwork behind Wild Boy © Crown Copyright

Alongside the Blakes, I looked at historical prints such as Bartholomew Fair (1808) by Thomas Rowlandson and Auguste Charles Pugin (a work I later discovered Rob also knew from his research for the book); and View of Fish Street Hill from Gracechurch Street (1795) by William Marlow. These works provided rich sources of visual detail on the sights, sounds and (pungent) smells of what it would have been like to live in London at the turn of the 19th century.

3 The Kids Asking Rob Questions About Wild Boy

The kids asking Rob questions about Wild Boy © Crown Copyright

Once I’d planned the workshop, I shared my ideas with Rob, whose comments helped me make decisions about the final display. And so, on a scorching hot July day, two groups of 40 children from Grafton Park School visited the GAC. We kicked off by exploring the characters and setting of the book, using the prints as starting points. Their knowledge of the story’s characters was reflected in the lively discussion as they got up close to the works for the first time, swapping opinions with each other.

Each workshop ended with Rob talking about the historical sources behind Wild Boy and his love of London that fed into the rich detail of the book. He gave us a glimpse of the life of a fiction writer, answering questions like ‘what’s it like to be a writer?’ and ‘what made you pick Wild Boy as a character?’ We were surprised to learn that as a boy, Rob was a reluctant reader and it wasn’t until one Christmas when he was about 10, that a book of stories about Robin Hood unexpectedly hooked him on to stories and books, a passion which led to him becoming a successful writer of fiction and non-fiction.

4 Rob Lloyd Jones With The School Children

Rob Lloyd Jones with the school children © Crown Copyright

It was a pleasure to work with Rob, Grafton Park School and Pop Up Projects. Rob told us it ‘really fun’ working on the workshops and a contrast to working alone at home on his writing. Meeting readers and discovering exactly what they thought of the imaginary world he had conjured up was inspiring. We both found that making creative links between a story and visual images offers some kind of other role, other than just being words on a page.

Find out what Oliver Bootes-Hassan, Abigail Kellam and Tye Leng, three Grafton Park pupils thought about the visit and more about the project in this short film

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