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'Diana and Callisto' Schools Project

Can a historical painting enhance understanding of contemporary social issues?

The National Gallery’s groundbreaking 'Diana and Callisto' Schools Project took Titian’s Diana and Callisto painting, its context and the myth it portrays, as a stimulus for a creative intervention project.

The project explored the impact of using Titian’s painting to support teaching of PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) in a creative way with outcomes in poetry, art and design.

Working in consultation with the national teenage pregnancy charity Straight Talking and the PSHE Association, the project advised on effective practice when working with young people and dealing with the sensitive issues and themes at the heart of the painting – relationships with peers and unplanned pregnancy.

Watch a film about the project

Teachers and creative practitioners collaboratively planned the implementation of an art, design and poetry project whose focus was education through art – all activities were underpinned by exploration of the social issues that arose from the painting.

Hear about the project from the students and teachers involved, participating staff from Straight Talking and the National Gallery, and the poet Patience Agbabi.

'Diana and Callisto' Schools Project
Hear about this groundbreaking initiative from participants – 11 mins 58 secs

Pupil 1: The painting is based on a poem.

Pupil 2: It's a Greek myth about nymphs.

Pupil 3: Diana is the goddess of the hunt and Callisto was her favourite nymph. She was the most beautiful and most people liked her.

Pupil 4: Callisto was lured by Jupiter and he raped her.

Pupil 5: And then she becomes pregnant, but she's scared and she wants to hide it.

Pupil 6: Diana thinks the nymphs should be pure and not have children.

Pupil 7: Callisto looks like she's got nowhere to go and is really scared of what's going to happen next.

Pupil 8: She's being backed into a corner by all her friends, and Diana.

Pupil 9: And then Diana basically banishes her.

Pupil 10: Even though it was ages ago that the painting was painted, there's a lot of relevance to like, nowadays, and there's still, kind of, the same stuff that happens.

Pupil 5: It's like, teenage pregnancy and like, betrayal, and being part of a gang and following their rules, and things like that.

Pippa Couch: When the National Gallery first bought the ‘Diana and Callisto’ Titian painting, we were asked to develop an education project to go with it. The schools team was very keen to try and engage non-traditional audiences and also to look at the social themes that were arisen in the myth represented in the painting.

There’s quite a few people involved in this project. We've been working with the poet Patience Agbabi. We've been working with one of the National Gallery artist educators, Marc Woodhead. We have two schools based in Southwark, in London. And we've been working with the national teenage pregnancy charity Straight Talking. And we've also had contributions from the PSHE Association.

David Sabbagh: 'PSHE' stands for 'Personal, Social, Health and Economic' education. The idea behind it was to ensure that students have all the skills needed to lead a fully rounded and developed life. The role that PSHE played in the project was trying to take the myth of Diana and Callisto and apply PSHE issues to it. This ran alongside the project that they were doing with art, so they had to have a social aspect to their art project as well.

Hilary Pannack: Straight Talking is a charity which employs teenage mothers and young fathers. We train them to go into schools to deliver a programme about the realities and the implications of young parenthood. It reduces teenage pregnancy and it gets teenage parents back into education and employment.

The National Gallery asked if we would like to be involved in a programme with them, a project where they’re exploring a painting by Titian that has an implication in the narrative about teenage pregnancy. And they wanted to come to the experts, who are the teenage parents.

Shannon Doyle: We were asked to come along to the National Gallery to do a focus group – a young parent’s focus group – to focus on the ‘Diana and Callisto’ painting. And then they said that they would be really interested for me to go to the schools and speak to the pupils regarding the painting and my own life experiences. So I did.

Pippa Couch: Shannon went into the schools and delivered a PSHE session where she talked about the connections she herself had found between her own life and experiences as a young parent, making that revelation to her peers and family, and what she felt she saw in the Diana and Callisto myth.

Shannon Doyle: I was a young parent, okay. I had a baby when I was quite young and when I got pregnant I was really scared. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know who to tell. I didn't know where to go. And my friends weren’t very supportive, and I couldn't do the stuff that they wanted me to do. And I couldn't go out with them and stuff like that, so they literally didn't want to be my friend any more.

Jemima Gregson: When Shannon came in to work with the pupils she asked them to think about different issues that came up; how they might feel if it happened to them. She allowed them to ask some very personal questions, and I think it really helped them to get some extra insight into the plight of Callisto at this moment in the painting.

Pupil 11: Shannon is basically like an example of Callisto.

Pupil 12: You could sort of understand how Callisto felt.

Pupil 13: I think talking with Shannon was really interesting because you kind of got her point of view and you understood how it would have been to like, be in like… yeah her shoes. And you really understood how she was feeling at the time, and not just what you would think she would be feeling.

Ralph Goddard: Going to the National Gallery to actually see the Titian painting was a great opportunity for our students. To actually sit in front of the painting and actually discuss it and actually look at the real thing; to see details and things in there that they would never have seen in a book or a print of the painting.

Pupil 14: I went to the art gallery to look at the painting in like, close up, and it was really big.

Pupil 10: When I first saw it I didn't really know what it was going to be all about. I thought it looked quite boring, but it was actually really interesting.

Marc Woodhead: I mean look at those two. We can see the back of a head, and they're in the shadows and they're facing each other. What are those two saying to each other?

Pupil 12: It was much more clearer and more detailed, and we could actually see the little details – like the little parts of the story.

Pippa Couch: We were keen to work with the poet Patience Agbabi because she's worked with the Gallery and Titian paintings in the past. We thought it’d be nice if she could contribute her expertise to the project in schools.

Ralph Goddard: Patience had some really excellent ideas on how to involve children in poetry, which is an activity that they traditionally find quite difficult. But she made it very easy by relating to the painting and also relating it to their lives.

Patience Agbabi: 'Teardrop in a teat pipette, / my fate lies in the litmus: pink or blue.'

I often began each session with a poem, you know, just reading a poem that either I'd written or someone else had written to sort of get them into the poetry mode. And then we revisited the painting quite often. And I made it very interactive – so, you know, I asked lots of questions; they gave lots of answers.

Ralph Goddard: The poetry helped them focus on specific aspects of the painting and of the story. And I think it was a very useful tool for them.

Patience Agbabi: Quite a few pupils, I think, took on the plight of Callisto, and quite a few of them ganged up against Diana as well. It was generally sympathetic towards Callisto, but on the whole most of them were able to sort of focus on either the injustice of it all or the fact that something was kept hidden. They really went to the core of the issue I think.

Pippa Couch: Marc went into the schools and he created workshops that supported the work that they'd been doing already with their teachers in the project, and he led printmaking sessions.

Marc Woodhead: At Walworth Academy the students made drawings about their own stories to do with conflict. And we turned those stories into monoprints.

Pupil 12: We did our own sort of drawings of Titian, and we did monoprinting of it, and it was really fun.

Pupil 15: They made them bolder. It kind of just brought out more of the picture even more.

Marc Woodhead: How did it come out? Oh well done!

In Kingsdale Foundation School the pupils made drawings of fabric with hidden shapes, and the hidden shapes related to the theme of the hidden pregnancy in the painting. These were then turned into prints, and Patience's work with the pupils – their poems – were embroidered over the top. And these squares were then sewn together to make a quilt.

Jemima Gregson: We were very keen to create a way in which they could engage with the painting, but still make it relevant to them. We felt that this way every student would be able to have their own voice, as it were; their own part of the quilt. And we also wanted to link it to themes within the painting, which were there's lots of fabric and the idea of a quilt being something that makes you feel safe and comfortable, perhaps if you're ill or at a time of need. And obviously the painting has those issues in it.

John Brown: What's really great to see actually is how well the sort of literary aspects of working with Patience and the visual aspects of working with the artist Marc have really, really come together. Not only is it visually stunning, but the work is completely underpinned by the social issues that the pupils have been looking at in the painting. I mean this one here: ‘A baby is there / tearing apart’. All these key words really show the understanding of how the issue of the pregnancy has affected the relationship between these key characters. To me that really shows their understanding of the really powerful storyline in this painting.

Ralph Goddard: Working with the National Gallery has been a great experience for me personally. They've been very supportive and have given us the freedom as teachers to develop the project in our own way.

Jemima Gregson: It's been amazing to work with Marc and Patience and also John together, really collaboratively.

John Brown: I did expect at the beginning the pupils to be a little bit, perhaps, nervous talking around issues such as rape and pregnancy, but I feel like there's such an ease now in the class. They feel quite free to talk about these issues and in a very mature way.

Pupil 14: The painting has taught me to be less judgmental, and also to study more, or look into the detail of other paintings.

Pupil 16: It's made me learn about judging people, and that there's always a story behind something that sometimes you don't listen to.

Pupil 17: Things that happen in it are very similar to what happens today. Like, not everything, but the basic human aspect of it and, like, the relationships between people still go on today.

John Brown: What's been really good is, sort of, really analysing these relationships in class. The pupils have been really, really good at drawing parallels between what's going on in this painting, which was painted hundreds of years ago, and being able to still find relevance in it to their lives, and also to sort of popular culture such as, you know, soap operas of the day.

Hilary Pannack: You need to engage young people. You need to inspire them. And I think the National Gallery are doing something that should have been done years ago in personal and social and health education and across the curriculum. There are ways of engaging young people. To bring that Titian painting to life. To bring it into their own world, and make it relevant from their perspective is just perfect.

Teaching resources to accompany the use of Titian's 'Diana and Callisto' in PSHE lessons will be published online shortly.

Explore more

The Picture in Focus project employed another Titian painting based on the Diana myth – Diana and Actaeon – as a catalyst for learning.

Find out more about the project and view student work online

Titian's 'Diana and Callisto' inspired other contemporary poets to write their own poems – hear Lavinia Greenlaw and Jo Shapcott reading their poems.

Listen to and read an extract from an early poem about the Diana myth – Ovid's Callisto and Arcas – from his epic poem 'Metamorphoses' translated by Ted Hughes.