Picture-perfect ways to keep the kids amused this summer

Painting of boys flying kites, attributed to Godfried Schalcken

Who'd have thought that scooters would make a comeback as kids' top toys in the 21 Century? These low-tech, leg-propelled machines seem to hold endless allure for our techno-savvy, screen-junkie children. So, if such traditional toys can win favour with modern kids, encouraging activity in the great outdoors, why not urge your youngsters to take a few other tips for the summer holidays from the historic children in our paintings at Upton House?

Come and see the fascinating and varied art collection compiled by Walter Samuel, Lord Bearsted, in the early 20th Century and first displayed at Upton when he and his wife renovated the house and garden from 1927. 

See if you can spot these pictures when you visit...


Up, up and away

A good place to start is our Boys Flying Kites painting. The portrayal of children was a singular strength of Dutch 17th-century painting. Cleaning of the picture has revealed heraldry in the kites' red, white and green stripes, with a red star on the white and a white star on the green, perhaps echoed in the boys' costumes. So, here we have the age-old childish pursuit of dressing up. 

In the right foreground, yellow flag irises are in flower and, on the top of one, a huge green dragonfly has alighted – adding nature-hunt interest to this boys' jaunt. There's some debate about who painted this boisterous scene but none about this being a simple and exuberant celebration of a favourite boys' pastime, rather than an allegory about frivolity or transience.

A child's best friend

Meanwhile, we all know that small dogs and puppies can provide endless amusement and laughter for children of any age. Take a look at The Edgar Children – sisters Charlotte and Elizabeth, of Red House Park, Ipswich – painted by Arthur Devis in the early 1700s. 

These two full-length portraits of well-behaved little girls in pink frocks has them facing each other, on a terrace from which steps lead down to a park. Two small black dogs accompany them and look like they're about to tempt them to run around and have fun, just as soon as the artist lets them move away.

Take a look at The Edgar Children – sisters Charlotte and Elizabeth, of Red House Park, Ipswich, painted by Arthur Devis in the early 1700s
Painting of two girls in pink dresses in a garden with two small black dogs

'Onesies' from over two centuries ago

Puppy love also features in the portrait of The Macdonald Children – the trio of carefree brothers, painted by Henry Raeburn around 1800: the youngest one, Donald, cuddles their pet dog. The two older boys snap their fingers over their heads and it has been suggested that they are enacting a ‘childish parody of Highland dance’. What clever stuff, if they are! However, to any dog-lover's eye, it's also obvious they are attracting the attention of their canine friend to keep him looking up and ensure he holds his pose. 

All three boys wear red or yellow forerunners of our onesies: these fashionable ‘skeleton’ suits of the 1780s took their name from their close fit and because the lower and upper halves were buttoned together. 

The Macdonald Children, the trio of carefree brothers, painted by Henry Raeburn around 1800
Painting of three boys in red and yellow clothes from the 18th century

In training to become a god or goddess!

There are many more tips to be had from our scenes of childhood fun. Let's close for now with another child who chose an animal as his best buddy: A Child With a Goat, by a Dutch follower of Jacob Gerritsz almost four centuries ago. To Christians, goats represented the damned at the Last Judgement and, hence, the picture may symbolise childish innocence restraining sin. 

On a lighter note, privileged Dutch children of the Golden Age were given goats to pull their play-chariots, making believe they were Norse gods and goddesses. So, this is also a record of traditional play-acting. Above all, for our purposes, it's much more about a child coming to terms with a four-legged friend in the process of taming and training him. 

A Child With a Goat, by a Dutch follower of Jacob Gerritsz
Painting of a Child With a Goat