In which ‘How I train my Dragon’ becomes ‘How my Dragon trains me’


Take a couple of 17th century aristocrats, an unknown painter, a striking portrait and an inquisitive seven-year-old. Introduce the ingredients, stir gently, and wait for a response.

The Cholmondeley Ladies would never have been my starting point to introduce my daughter to art. Apart from anything else, I’d never heard of this portrait until Alicia came home from school one day chatting about it.

Initially it was the back story that grabbed her attention: two twin girls who grew up together, married on the same day and then gave birth on the same day before appearing side-by-side in a portrait of two seemingly identical mothers-with-children.

“Does that mean their children were also twins, Dad?” Well, no, that’s not quite how it works. But now we’re asking questions.

Off to the internet to look at picture together. Now she’s teaching me: “They’re not really identical, Dad, look. See how her necklace is different, and that one’s eyes aren’t the same. And look how the pattern on the mother’s dress is copied on the baby.”

That’s a lot of detail for small eyes to pick up. And it sparks even more discussion. Since little is known about the painting itself (oil on four oak panels, probably painted between 1600 and 1610, purpose unknown, pose unique in English painting of the period), there isn’t much room to take refuge in hard facts. The Gradgrind school of education, a handy cop-out for a busy parent, cannot apply here.

In the end, a single image triggers a whole conversation about art. Having always loved drawing and painting, crafting and experimenting, Alicia finds new inspiration in the Cholmondeley Ladies. From this point on, she’s interested in understanding they why rather than worrying entirely about the how.

And this is where the flow changes. Normally, inspiration is top down: we have parents, teachers, mentors whose example stays with us through our lives. Maybe we find a celebrity role model, lighting the path towards something we hope to achieve for ourselves. Sometimes, it just takes a friend: she can do a cartwheel, so I’m going to learn to do it too.

Suddenly, though, the inspiration is coming from the child, not the dad. I’d never known much about art, never been one to devote a day to touring a major gallery. But on a trip to London, we decided to go to the Tate and see the original.

It hangs in a room dominated by portraits from the 1600s. There’s a host of women, all of whom look oddly like Elizabeth I. And a collection of men, too, also suspiciously similar in appearance. We get talking, we get to share ideas. Is it fashion that makes them look the same? Is it a wealthy patron demanding a certain image, worthy of his status and wealth? If so, does it have anything to do with art?

Discussing life with a seven-year-old is a strange experience. As an adult, you’re constantly pushed to justify what seems self-evident. After years of training my little dragon, the tables are turned and she’s training me. Alicia’s never heard of Socrates, and Dad instinctively thinks of a Brazilian footballer (another inspiration, another story). Nonetheless, there’s a hefty slice of Socratic method going on here.

                                         One of Turner’s mysterious Venetian canvases.

We explore further, we see how Turner’s Venice dissolves into reflections of light. For the first time, we’re starting to see what informs the artist’s vision. It’s a thrilling, fascinating shared experience.

And, yes, it’s humbling. There’s nothing unusual about finding inspiration in a work of art. It’s part of that top down process. However, people rarely think of inspiration reversing the flow. But parenting changes everything. Forced to see the world through new eyes, I can’t help but review some of my prejudices and preconceptions. And that valuable lesson is why my daughter is such a powerful inspiration for me. Now and, hopefully, for many years to come.

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