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Past exhibition

13 September – 5 December 2010

Admission free
Location: Learning Gallery

An exhibition showcasing primary pupils’ storytelling inspired by the National Gallery collection. The exhibition includes oral storytelling, animation, writing, and artwork from a selection of the participating London schools.

Out of Art into Literacy

Out of Art into Literacy
Primary pupils’ storytelling inspired by National Gallery paintings – 10 mins


Narrator: Many of the paintings in the National Gallery collection depict stories from, for example, mythology, the Christian faith or history. In a significant number of the pictures this narrative is not a known narrative, but is simply suggested, offering the viewer a story seed for them to nurture by drawing on the clues in the painting as well as their own memories and imagination. In this way any possible number of narratives can be created from the same painting.

Storyteller: Making that extraordinary screeching noise.

Narrator: The National Gallery's paintings provide windows into other times and other places, transporting the viewer to worlds that are different from our own and yet surprisingly similar, connected through common themes such as conflict, identity and love.

Although the richness of these stories makes the Gallery's collection a powerful resource, this is not the only crucial factor. The immediacy of a visual stimulus cannot be underestimated. With the potential barrier of text removed, the narratives are quite literally transformed from black and white to multicolour and then presented, frozen, in one specific moment of high drama.

It is the concentration of story into a single, accessible image that captures and engages all children, inviting their curiosity, igniting their discussion and, in turn, instilling confidence and passion. This confidence and passion reaches well beyond the confines of a given project or classroom.

Girl: An eagle.

Teacher: An eagle!

Narrator: This premise was the basis of the two projects celebrated in the 'Out of Art into Literacy' exhibition. The quality of the children's work and the testimonies from pupils, teachers and parents reflect the level of engagement, inspiration and transformation that was enabled as a result.

Teachers from 22 schools and their 1,200 pupils worked with the National Gallery over nine months on one of two projects: 'Into the Frame', centred on Frank Cottrell Boyce's book 'Framed', and 'Out of Art into Storytelling'.

Storyteller: ... a huge fish with sharp, jagged teeth, and it rose up and opened its jaws and it was so large it looked as if it was about to swallow him, and Raphael called from the bank, 'hit it with your staff!'

Narrator: Both projects began with teachers engaging in an extended period of training. This was significant as they explored for themselves as learners, discovering for themselves the confidence and skill of working with and from paintings, through talk and drama into storytelling.

It was by having the opportunity to reflect and develop their own understanding of the underlying thinking and processes behind the techniques they were experiencing that the teachers were able to take ownership, which translated into innovation and creative risk-taking in the classroom, to the benefit of their pupils.

Girl: Look at that tiny one!

Narrator: The book 'Framed', by Frank Cottrell Boyce, is set in a tiny Welsh village called Manod. In the novel, when the National Gallery is under threat from flooding, the paintings are sent to Manod to be stored in the local slate mine for safe (or not so safe, as it turns out) keeping.

Specific National Gallery paintings are woven through the narrative, which centres on 10-year-old Dylan and his family, who live above the village garage. The pupils responded to the richness of the text, bringing episodes of it to life through drama and role-play.

Teacher: When we introduce a book and we started using art and talk, and speaking and listening, and drama, which has been really, really powerful, things have just changed around so they love it, they love the characters, they understand the family and everything like that. So it's just a transformation, and every single week now they actually want to do drama, which is not possible all the time, but it's something that I do much more of.

Narrator: The understanding, empathy and engagement that this facilitated was reflected in the children's subsequent writing. Artwork was also a natural response: here, for example, pupils translated into visual form the picture of Manod that Frank Cottrell Boyce paints in words. Pupils also responded to the National Gallery paintings that appear in the story, as this head teacher describes.

Head Teacher: The use of painting always enables children, especially reluctant writers, to engage much more confidently with narrative. I felt that that was another angle in, because in terms of raising the attainment of all children, I felt that the visual aspect of the project, directly related to the National Gallery, would enable us to do that. And it has worked. That's been an amazing aspect of the project. And I think it's the strength of the narrative in the paintings that are in the book that means that teachers are able to plan the most amazing learning experiences for those children.

Narrator: They explored notions of beauty in relation to Quinten Massys's 'An Old Woman ("The Ugly Duchess")', otherwise know as 'The Grotesque Old Woman'.

Frank Cottrell Boyce: And when I say ugly I don't mean not nice looking, I mean her face should have been certificate 18! She had big nostrils pointing out at you like truck exhausts, and as for her eyes, well I've seen bigger on a potato, her skin was all wrinkly like an old balloon, especially her neck, which was like a roast dinner gone wrong, and her clothes were old fashioned like from history. She had a random thing plonked on her head. I suppose it was a hat but it looked more like half a couch, and the worst thing was, the very worst thing was, she was coming out of her dress at the top! If the painter had painted her a minute later... ooh, I don't want to think about it.

Narrator: They had debates around great art…

Boy: Look at the blobs!

Narrator: And wrote from within the scene that the painting had drawn them into.

Narrator: Experiencing the original paintings by visiting the National Gallery and also meeting the author Frank Cottrell Boyce proved a compelling moment for the pupils.

Boy: I liked looking at all the fantastic pictures. I would definitely, definitely, definitely, and again definitely, would like to go and visit the National Gallery again. It was a great experience. It was amazing!

Narrator: The pupils' creative output was collated, displayed and celebrated. Some schools collected work in journals or made books. 'Out of Art into Storytelling' developed both teachers and pupils' skills as storytellers. They learned how to immerse themselves in a painting through guided looking, to unravel the stories within them through discussion and drama, and then to tell their own versions. The children initially used story maps to help them remember the stories, but soon they could tell them from memory, sometimes lasting as long as 10 minutes.

Boy: 'I can see!' said Tobit. 'Indeed you can.' But maybe he could see better than Tobias and Sarah because when he looked at Raphael he didn't see the tribesman who helped him for many miles, no, he saw a man with a light. Or could that just be the sun? No, he saw a man with glimmering silver wings. Or maybe it was because he was so blind for so long? As the light went, so did Raphael. 'Now I can see', chuckled Tobit.

Narrator: Children from Year 1 to Year 6 told their stories to their friends and to their parents. The children's passion was reflected in their writing. Pupils told the stories in different ways: this animation is the product of a collaboration with the local city learning centre. Pupils were taught animation techniques over which they improvised the voice-over to recount 'The Adventures of Perseus'.

Medusa: [scream]

Perseus: Ha! I've got the head, Polydectes will be in trouble!

Narrator: Significantly, the confidence the children had gained from working with paintings with known stories transferred to those without. They succeeded in creating their own stories from paintings that only suggested narrative.

Girl: Once, long, long ago, back in the mists of time, Atticus lived in a little town called Attle with his lovely, charming wife Athineas.

Teacher: You are all absolute experts on paintings, am I right?

Narrator: The external evaluation of the projects carried out by Cambridge University concluded that there is powerful evidence of the potential of pedagogy-inspired by visual art to transform pupils' storytelling. Both 'Into the Frame' and 'Out of Art into Storytelling' ignited an enthusiasm in, first, teachers and then, through them, to their pupils, for unlocking narratives in the National Gallery's paintings. For many children and their families it has initiated a relationship with their national collection of paintings, and with creating and telling the stories they discover within them. 

'Out of Art into Literacy' celebrates the outcomes of two innovative projects with primary schools: 'Into the Frame' and 'Out of Art into Storytelling'. Both enabled teachers to explore the potential of National Gallery paintings to inspire their pupils’ talk and writing both inside and outside of the classroom.

Following an extended period of training at the National Gallery, the teachers transferred their new understanding and thinking to their classroom practice with remarkable results.

All 1,200 children visited the National Gallery to see what had become ‘their’ paintings. They were so inspired that many have since returned with their families at weekends and during holiday time.

This exhibition and accompanying film celebrate the pupils’ work and reveal, as the Cambridge University external evaluation confirmed, the power of visual art to transform children’s storytelling.