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Take One Picture

Issued April 2019

9 May – 11 August 2019
Sunley Room
Admission free

This summer, the National Gallery will showcase the work of children from across the UK in the 24th annual Take One Picture exhibition.

Each year the Gallery invites primary schools nationwide to focus on one of its paintings and respond creatively to its themes and subject matter, historical context, or composition.

With the aim of promoting the visual arts across the curriculum and inspiring a lifelong love of art, this year the National Gallery selected An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’ as the source of inspiration.

'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump' depicts a travelling scientist demonstrating the formation of a vacuum by withdrawing air from a flask containing a white cockatoo. Air pumps were developed in the 17th century and were relatively familiar by Wright's day. The painting was chosen for the wide range of subjects that are explored: the depiction of a scientific invention and its entertainment value, the human drama happening in a night-time domestic setting, and the references to the Age of Enlightenment.

The bird will die if the demonstrator continues to deprive it of oxygen, and Wright (1734–1797) leaves us in doubt as to whether or not the cockatoo will be reprieved. The painting reveals a wide range of individual reactions, from the frightened children, the reflective philosopher, the excited interest of the youth on the left, to the indifferent young lovers concerned only with each other. The figures are dramatically lit by a single candle, while in the window the moon appears. On the table in front of the candle is a glass containing a skull.
From a multicoloured fabric print of birdcages to large paper wings with colour-coded feathers showing the different emotions linked to the painting, or plans drawn for imaginative machines invented by the students, the exhibition will feature a range of works reflecting the richness of creative responses to Wright’s painting.

Pupils in years 1–6 from Maple Walk School, London, discussed what might happen next in the painting. They decided that the scientist would open the air pump, letting the bird fly out and the girl would be overjoyed. Working with a local artist they made a collaborative wire sculpture showing the scientist and one of the girls standing beside the flask with the freed bird on top.

“I was building a cage for a bird by cutting wire and shaping it; it was tricky but I persevered,” said Evie aged 6.

Year 3 pupils from Headley Park Primary School, Bristol, were concerned about the fate of the bird in the painting. They imagined that after the experiment, it would be rescued by a flock of urban cockatiels! The children used papier mâché to model their own birds and worked together to create a flock. They ringed each bird’s leg with a unique code to tell them apart.

“My bird will save the bird in the air pump by smashing the window, pecking the scientist’s hand and flipping the lid off!” said Todd aged 7.

Year 4 pupils from St Benedict’s Junior School, London, took inspiration from the air pump. After looking at a variety of machine inventions, they started to design their own fantasy machines using materials such as Lego. They then made prints of the machines using the cyanotype process – a photographic process that produces a cyan-blue print.

“I enjoyed watching my cyanotype print in the sunlight. I also enjoyed designing a really cool machine, even if it didn’t work,” said Elise aged 9.

Claire Kirk, Interim Head of Learning and National Programmes at the National Gallery, says:

“This amazing painting, so full of drama and emotion, has inspired children up and down the country. Painted over 250 years ago, Wright’s 'Experiment' has encouraged children to explore both the relationship between science and art and the relationship between science and ethics. Whether moved by the plight of the bird, intrigued by the experiment, or astonished by the artist’s use of light and dark, the children’s work displayed in this exhibition shows just how much learning and creativity can come from taking just one picture.”

Take One Picture is generously supported by Columbia Threadneedle Foundation.

The Sunley Room exhibition programme is supported by The Bernard Sunley Foundation


About Take One Picture
Launched in 1995, Take One Picture is the National Gallery’s countrywide scheme for primary schools. Each year the Gallery focuses on one painting from the collection to inspire cross-curricular work in primary classrooms. As part of a one-day Continuing Professional Development (CPD) course at the Gallery, teachers are given a print of a painting and a soundscape that the National Gallery has put together. The challenge is then for schools to use the image imaginatively in the classroom, both as a stimulus for artwork, and for work in more unexpected curriculum areas.

Each year a display of work produced by schools based on the painting is shown at the National Gallery, and a selection is published on the National Gallery website. In order to be considered for the display, schools submit examples of how a whole class or school has used the picture in a cross-curricular way to the Gallery’s Education Department by a set date.

Further information about the programme, related CPD courses for teachers, and the annual Take One Picture exhibition at the National Gallery can be found at

About Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’
Joseph Wright was born in Derby, the son of a local lawyer. He trained with Thomas Hudson in London, before returning to Derby. Two of his most important patrons were Josiah Wedgwood, credited with the industrialisation of pottery, and Richard Arkwright, regarded as the creator of the factory system in the cotton industry. He painted landscapes, portraits and night scenes, as well as paintings with scientific and industrial 'subjects', but principally as investigations of dramatic lighting. Between 1773 and 1775 he was in Italy, then in Bath, returning in 1777 to Derby, where he died.

About Columbia Threadneedle Investments
Columbia Threadneedle Investments is a leading global asset manager that provides a broad range of actively managed investment strategies and solutions for individual, institutional and corporate clients around the world. With more than 2000 people including over 450 investment professionals based in North America, Europe and Asia, it manages £338bn of assets (at 31 Dec 2018) across developed and emerging market equities, fixed income, asset allocation solutions and alternatives.

Columbia Threadneedle Foundation is committed to investing in the community through partnerships that create positive social impact. It focuses on charities that use education, art and sport to engender lasting social change. Common threads in its programmes and charity partners include the ability to build skills and confidence, challenge perspectives, and broaden horizons.

The schools represented in the 2019 display are:
Brighton College Prep School, Brighton
Caroline Chisholm School, Northampton
Chepstow House School, London
Clatford Primary School, Hampshire
Cleveland Road Primary School, Essex
Combe St Nicholas C of E VA Primary School, Somerset
Crosshall Junior School, Cambridgeshire
Duncombe Primary School, London
Exeter Junior School, Exeter
Gateway School, Buckinghamshire
Gillespie Primary School, London
Grafton School, London
Grange Park School, Kent
Headley Park Primary School, Bristol
Kenmont Primary School, London
King Edward's Junior School, Bath
King’s College School, La Moraleja (Madrid)
Kingswood Primary School, Gloucestershire
Little Gaddesden C of E VA Primary School, Hertfordshire
Maple Walk School, London
Oaktree Nursery and Primary School, Swindon
Perry Hall Primary School, Kent
Putnoe Primary School, Bedfordshire
Ray Lodge Primary School, London
S. Anselm’s Preparatory School, Derbyshire
St Benedict’s Junior School, London
St John’s Primary School, Maidstone
Trinity Primary Academy, London
West Rainton Primary School, Durham
Wellington School, Somerset
Winterbourne Junior Girl’s School, Surrey

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