Art theme: identity

Artists think carefully about how to express identity when constructing an image of a person, whether creating images of themselves or someone else. It's important to consider how to convey someone's personality and qualities, interests and beliefs in an artwork. How can an artist show the things that are important to that person? How can they help viewers gain a sense of their experiences, culture and background? 

Artists give viewers an insight into a person's unique identity in all manner of ways. For instance, in figurative art, artists may make use of features such as clothing, hairstyle and accessories, as well as facial expressions, gestures and pose. The objects and background they portray their subject with can also help to cast light on a person's identity.

Contextual background for teachers

The Last of England (1855)
Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893)

Medium: oil on panel
Dimensions: H 82.5 x W 75 cm

Ford Madox Brown’s painting shows a couple exposed to the elements as they sit on the deck of a busy ship, embarking on a journey by sea. The woman tucks her baby inside her cloak, protecting them as best she can from the storm. In the distance, we can see the White Cliffs of Dover – a final glimpse of home as the painting’s title, The Last of England, suggests. 

The artist painted this work at a time of mass emigration from the country in the mid-nineteenth century as millions set sail in search of a better life overseas. The lifeboat seen in the painting bears the name El Dorado, the mythical city of gold in South America. It offers a hint as to why many placed their hopes and dreams on a new life in the Americas or Australia; among these was a close friend of Brown, whose emigration inspired the artist to paint The Last of England

Look, describe and discuss

Open a full-screen version of the zoomable image in a new window.

Ask your students to describe the artwork, encouraging them to simply say what they can see.

You can start by showing the whole image, and then use the zoom feature to explore details of the painting. Or you might like to start by using the zoom feature to show a detail from the image, and then zoom out to see more.

Encourage your students to look carefully – this is their superpower! It's best not to give too much background information about the artwork at this stage, so students can develop their own ideas and opinions.

An audio description of the painting is available. It is accompanied by a full written transcript which can also be used to describe the painting.

Nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • What do you think is going on here?
  • Where do you look first in the painting?
  • What are your first impressions of the figures?
  • What might you see or smell if you were transported into this painting?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting.

For this artwork, you will focus on:

Ask your students to evidence their points:

  • where exactly are they looking when they make a statement?
  • can everybody see what they see?
  • slow down, take time to really look closely

You can introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers while asking these bespoke questions with helpful responses which can be found in the teachers' notes.

Everyone learning

You can find out more about The Superpower of Looking® SEND/ASD/ALN approach on the Superpower homepage.

Now it's time to explore the artwork in different ways. This list of sensory activities encourages students to apply their learning and can suit a variety of learning needs.


  • Make your own circular viewfinder by cutting out a circle from a piece of card. Now use your viewfinder at school, home or outdoors to focus on one scene. Can you draw it in your sketchbook? 


  • Invite students to imagine they are on this boat too. What might they hear? Crashing waves, crying babies, people shouting? Work in groups to create a soundscape that matches the painting. 
  • Listen to the audio description of the painting.


  • This painting is full of textural details, including individual droplets of water on different surfaces. Offer students a range of different fabrics and encourage them to experiment with getting them wet. Which fabrics would be most suitable for a long, wet voyage? Why do they think this? 


  • Challenge students to recreate this composition in groups. How does it feel to be packed tightly into this space? 
  • Invite students to imagine they are seated on the ship. At first, imagine that the sea is calm; next, that the sea is rough and choppy. How do the students’ movements differ in these two scenarios?


  • The couple in this painting aren’t talking. Their lips are shut tight. What do students think was the last thing the couple said to each other? What do they think will be the next thing they say?
  • Learn the Makaton sign or British Sign Language for ‘boat’. 

Final stage: review

Ask your students to:

  • share their sketchbooks in groups and discuss the 'elements' they have identified
  • choose an element/aspect they find most interesting about the artwork and record it in their sketchbooks
  • choose their own name/s for the title of the artwork
  • think of a question they would like to ask the artist



You have now completed this lesson resource on The Superpower of Looking.

There are more resources in this theme to try – have a look at the 'next lessons' section below.

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