Family Matters by Leah Chan

he Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

Isabella and the Pot of Basil

Isabella and the Pot of Basil

How would you depict family life? A new exhibition at The Laing Art Gallery attempts to answer this question in the exhibition, Family Matters. Works are divided up into five themes: inheritance, childhood, parenting, home, and finally, couples and kinship. But can these themes really capture family as it is? Or is everything not quite as simple as that?

On looking at Grayson Perry’s vase entitled Difficult Background, for example, you see the typical images of children playing. However look closer and things aren’t what they seem, as the artist questions the idea of a happy childhood and seems to ask: is it all a misconception? The images are actually of the children playing in scenes of war and violence, and this gives the viewer a profound sense of unease, making you realise that children are being brought up in such environments. This is complicated again when you realise that the children playing and the scenes of violence are entirely unrelated, different scenes pieced together on this vase. This creates a contrast; the children have nothing to do with the war; however their lives are indirectly affected by it.

Personally, I found Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1876) – an oil on canvas image – quite intriguing. This painting created by William Holman Hunt illustrates a poem by John Keats. The girl – Isabella – is cradling a pot containing the head of her lover, Lorenzo. Lorenzo was murdered by her own brothers – the skulls on the pot refer to his death which contrasts with the the roses on the ground, which symbolise the end of love. This left me wondering: does the image not therefore contradict itself – as Isabella is still cradling the pot, so surely love is still present?

The contradiction within this image makes it perfect for Family Matters as it depicts the idea of uncertainty in relationships, the presence of love and more obviously family conflict. Family Matters is an exhibition that raises many questions but allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions.