Naidoo, bestselling author of books for children
and young adults, worked with over 200 Year 7 pupils
from Longford Community School. She talks about
her impressions of the masterclasses below.
“Why did I choose this particular
painting for my workshop?
I found this painting on the National Gallery website.
It was in a special store and although not currently
being shown to the public, the students were allowed
to visit the special room. I was drawn to the hidden
stories and unheard voices in the painting. There
are two figures but only the Princess is named in
the title. It is as if the other figure doesn’t
exist in history. When I looked at the black child,
my instinct told me that he or she was a slave.
There was also something about their expressions
that told me each character was putting on a mask.
I started to research. The more I dug into the story,
the deeper I was drawn in. Here was a German princess,
married as a child to Prince Rákóczi
whom Hungarians still honour as a fighter for Hungarian
freedom. The princess’s story was both extraordinary
and sad. But with no name for the black child, there
was no way of us finding the particulars of the
child’s story. We would have to use general
knowledge and our imaginations…
I spoke to the students about how novelists have
to work like detectives. We have to get behind the
masks that our characters wear. We have to be very
observant and use all our senses to pick up clues.
So we began to do that with the picture in front
of us and it was exciting to see new clues emerge
as the students examined the image more closely.
Some parts of the painting are very dark and shadowy.
At first some students thought the black child was
wearing a necklace to match the earring. Other students
looked at the child’s expression and awkward
position of the head. Was it not a metal brace?
A necklace wouldn’t be so wide, would it?
Then a student detected what could be a chain linking
the top of the Princess’s peacock feather
fan to the neck brace, probably at the back of the
child’s neck, out of sight. There was a moment
of horror as we contemplated the pain… and
yes, this child was certainly a slave.
I told the students what I had found out about the
Princess’s story and what might lie behind
her sad eyes and fixed smile. There was a terrible
irony in her lack of concern for the child’s
pain. I asked the students to imagine themselves
either as the princess or as the child, standing
in front of the painter for the portrait. It’s
a long time to stand still. What might you be thinking,
feeling, fearing, hoping? What vivid memories might
fill your mind?
It’s not easy to step back nearly 300 years
in time. I hope that looking closely at this painting
and finding the voices of its characters took the
young writers some way along that human journey.”
See student responses.