Occasionally it happens that a painting insists upon coming into existence. So it is with this one. I had set out to paint something else, but once the deep purple/black ground was down I couldn’t look at it without thinking of polished mahogany furniture and crocheted tablecloths. The painting formed in my mind and I couldn’t get around it; the only way to get it out of the way and move on to something else was to paint it.
The verses are scraps of prayers and hymns remembered from my schooldays. The drawings are taken from the Little Golden Book of Prayers for Children, which I still have, lovingly inscribed as a gift from my parents for my first birthday.
In the illustrations in the little prayer book, children say grace over tea parties with their dollies, walk about protected by angels, and kneel together in prayer surrounded, like St Francis of Assisi, by birds and small fluffy animals. I can vaguely remember feeling that if one was a good girl, this is how it would be.
The year I turned four I was sent to an Anglican grammar school, and I continued there until the end of my secondary schooling, aged seventeen. “Junior School”, the years from Prep to Grade 3, I remember as a happy time of making and doing, singing and skipping, reading and writing, playing and learning. In Years 4 to 10 we were given a pretty standard education for the time, delivered mainly by ageing ladies some of whom were pretty whacky. In the last two years things went downhill fast, but that’s another story.
And, as a backdrop to the standard curricular proceedings, there was the religious education. It was presented cheerfully enough, with the usual stories of saints and angels, the daily hymns and rituals. It was not until many years later that I began to see the possible consequences of inculcating children with the doctrine of original sin that underlay it all. No wonder, when we entered the wider world in the late 1960’s, so many of us failed to achieve, made poor partnership choices and needed assertiveness training when we had told ourselves, in our own voices, through liturgy and song on a daily basis during all those growing years, that we were worthless.
I called this painting “Suffer little children” and added the scrap of canvas held on by a black feather to take into account the advice of family, friends and colleagues who felt that if I had left the painting in its first state, without the additions to the image and the rather obvious title, it might be thought by the viewer that I was actually promoting the doctrine. I wanted to present the work as something quite aesthetically appealing, something lovingly created but bearing a message that must surely have a negative impact on a developing child. The message is: no matter how hard I try, no matter how many prayers I say, despite the fact that angels guard my way, I am personally responsible for the death of Christ through my intrinsically flawed nature. I am worth nothing.
The potency of these words is demonstrated by the fact that after many decades I can recall them with such ease. The word “suffer” has of course changed in meaning. It used to mean “put up with”. The rest of the quote was “Suffer the little children to come unto Me and forbid them not; for such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”