Using Portraits

Margaret Still

This article first appeared in MAPE Focus on History Spring 2000

"Portraits are a bubbling mass of pent-up emotions, events, comments and personalities." (Susan Morris - Using Portraits - English Heritage) We need to train ourselves and the children to know what to look for and where to find clues.

By studying portraits hanging in buildings the children can gain a good understanding not only of the costume of the day but indications of the rank and nobility and perhaps the character of the sitter.

Messages are given through clothes, badges, insignia, backgrounds, drapes, expressions, poses, proportions etc.

Encourage the children to visually study a portrait using thought instead of just casually looking at it.

In group portraits it is important to examine individuals as separate identities and their connection also to the composition of the group and the reaction of individuals to each other.

Copies of portraits and pictures make ideal material for developing files for Concept Multimedia. With the portrait on the overlay, the messages showing on the computer can ask the children the vital questions that will lead them to obtain the most information from the picture.

The following are some suggestions to the form of questioning that would enable children to get the most from a portrait. They are taken from Susan Morris's book "Using Portraits" published by English Heritage,which gives numerous ideas for children studying and interpreting from portraits.

Start by asking do you/don't you like the picture? Why?

A stage further will lead to an objective level analysing how an artist has arrived at the effect created.

Get the children to describe the clothes. What is the sitter wearing? Does this tell us anything? What?

What are the facial expressions? What mood is the person in?

Look at the pose and gesture. What do they imply?

Are the body proportions correct? Why might this be significant?

Study the background and any accessories in the picture? What do they tell us?

Can you tell what medium is used?

What is the use of colour and texture? Are there any lighting effects?

Does the frame surrounding the portrait show anything significant?

If the portrait is a group does one person stand out more? Why might this be?

How do the people feel about each other?

Use the above starting points to study the portrait of Sir Henry Unton.

[top of page]