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Image of ‘Princess Rákóczi’ by Nicolas de Largillierre, probably 1720.
Beverley 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.
Image of quote from Beverley's story.Click here for Beverley's story.
Image of students.Click here for Student Responses.
Detail of ‘Princess Rákóczi’ by Nicolas de Largillierre, probably 1720.Click here for About the Painting.
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More about Beverley Naidoo