Portrait workshop

Eliza Draper – an Absent Presence’. The exhibition examined the relationship between Laurence Sterne (author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman) and a young woman named Eliza Draper during 1767.

Eliza was born in India and was married to Daniel Draper of the East Indian Co. She met Sterne when she was visiting London (aged 22 and already the mother of three children) and their friendship is commemorated in a series of letters that Sterne wrote to her just before she left to return to Bombay. These letters were published under the title ‘Letters from Yorick to Eliza’ – ‘Yorick’ was Sterne’s pseudonym.

Sterne was deeply affected by this relationship and the letters reflect his tenderness towards the young woman. Although they were both married, his fantasy creates a time when Eliza will come to live with him at Shandy Hall where she will be his Muse. He had a miniature portrait painted of her by Richard Cosway which he carried with him at all times, sometimes in his snuff-box, sometimes (possibly) on a ribbon around his neck.

Eliza never came to live at Shandy Hall – even though Sterne had a little suite of rooms built in the old house made especially for her. She is an absent presence in his life.

It is this ‘absent presence’ that the exhibition drew attention to and provided an opportunity for primary school children to understand some aspects of life in the eighteenth century.

A portrait is a reminder to someone of another – a locket with a miniature portrait is even more meaningful. How is a likeness created? What should the portrait painter include to make the image special?

Artist Tom Wood developed these ideas in two 2-day workshops with Riverside Community Primary School (Tadcaster) and Carlton Miniott School – both in North Yorkshire. A link was made with the British School in Delhi, India and the children in England painted portraits of the Indian children based, not on photographs, but on questionnaires and descriptions. These imaginary images were displayed in the exhibition and can be seen online here. The children in England exhibited their portraits of the Indian children in a live Skype link-up with the school.

The children learnt how to use a variety of mediums including pencil, acrylic paint, Indian ink, crayon and – most importantly – imagination.

It is hoped the workshops will be replicated in India using a similar questionnaire answered by the children in the UK.