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By Jane Bower — is a consultant to primary schools in art, drama, dance and literacy

Focus on backgrounds to see what they tell us about portraits

Backgrounds can be easily overlooked, especially if they are dominated by an arresting face or figure. Yet they are of great importance, as they serve not only to show the sitter to the best advantage, but often provide clues about the person portrayed. In photography, backgrounds can help us to pin down the date of the picture or to narrow it down to a single event.

Collect, and ask the children to find, examples of photographed and painted portraits with varied backgrounds. Examples of photographs might include the work of Linda McCartney, Patrick Lichfield or David Bailey, or Victorian photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, whose backgrounds were an integral part of their portraits.

Paintings with fascinating backgrounds include The Arnolfini Wedding by Van Eyck, The Ambassadors by Holbein, and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Before beginning each activity, the children should be given time to study and discuss examples of backgrounds, using the Essential facts list for guidance.

Ages 7-9

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