Music and Children’s Art

Public events organised by the Virginia Woolf & Music project include workshops with pre-school children aged 3-5. In 2016, children from nurseries around Fife, Scotland, have been finger-painting to three short pieces of music: classical (‘Alla Hornpipe’ from Handel’s Water Music), rock (‘My Big Mouth’, by Oasis), and a Scottish folk song (‘Ally Bally’). Following the project’s broad interest in music and emotion, the children were asked to describe the music and how it made them feel. The video gallery that follows shows a selection of their paintings and comments on the music.

The main purpose of these activities was enjoyment but they are also a light-hearted tribute to Virginia Woolf’s close relationship with her niece, Angelica (daughter of the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant). Woolf wrote many playful letters to the young Angelica and took an interest in her music education. She attended Angelica’s school concerts and took her to performances; by their teens, Vanessa’s children seemed to Woolf ‘terrifyingly sophisticated’ – ‘Quentin won’t less us play him Wagner; prefers Bach’. Angelica became an accomplished violinist; a 1934 portrait by her father shows her playing aged 16.

The experience of watching her nieces and nephews grow up prompted Woolf to reflect on her own music education and discuss it with Vanessa. Their childhood lessons had not been inspiring: piano lessons ‘reduc[ed] us to complete boredom’, Vanessa remembered, and she objected to the expectation that they had to learn music simply because they were girls. Woolf wrote that by adulthood she couldn’t remember ‘a word’ of the tonic sol-fa singing technique but nonetheless offered to get instruction manuals for Vanessa who wanted to teach her own children.

The Bloomsbury group more widely also took an interest in children’s art, partly because of the admiration for ‘primitive’ or naïve art expressed by art theorists and modern artists (many of whom collected art by children). Roger Fry organised exhibitions of children’s paintings at the Omega Gallery, London, in 1917 and 1919 and published the essay ‘Children’s Drawings’ in 1917. Like Clive Bell, Fry believed that sensitivity to art and form was innate, not taught: he stated that the ‘average child has extraordinary inventiveness in design and the average adult none whatever’, speculating that formal art training was responsible for this decline. Woolf may have had such ideas in mind when she has the newly-engaged characters in her first novel (The Voyage Out, 1915) allude to similarly advanced theories of children’s education: they ‘sketch an outline of the ideal education – how their daughter should be required from infancy to gaze at a large square of cardboard, painted blue, to suggest thoughts of infinity, for women were grown too practical’.