As part of a drive to encourage the interaction of the general public with the art world, and to knock down perceived barriers of inaccesibility, four museum trusts – Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service, and Museums Sheffield – have established the Great British Art Debate. There is plenty of online interaction, by way of blogs and other social media, but four special exhibitions have also been devised. Family Matters: The Family in British Art is one of them, and, having toured three other venues, it now finds itself in the Tate Britain. 

Family Matters explores representations of the family over a 400-year timespan. It is not just an exhibition of oil paintings – there are plenty of those, of course, but sculpture, professional and amateur photography, and even genealogical records make an appearance, thereby opening the exhibition to a broad audience. It is also not just a collection of traditional, idealised perceptions of family life; again, there is an element of that, but the exhibition takes on parental, sisterly and amorous relationships, as well as showcasing the unfortunate reality of fragmented family life. 

It is a deliberately stimulating exhibition, in that the curators, Greg Sullivan and Tabitha Barker, have hung paintings thematically, whilst highlighting the contrasts in the artists' interpretations of each theme. For instance, a painting instantly recognisable as a Hockney (entitled My Parents (1977)), is hung next to a painting from 1736 (Henry Walton's Sir Robert and Lady Buxton and their daughter Ann). The Hockney, with its bright colours, depicts the artist's ageing parents each minding their own business: whilst his mother sits facing forward, his father carries on reading the paper. One wonders whether it is representative of the artist's own perceptions – an attentive mother, and a father who was less interested in Hockney's artistic aspirations – though it is in fact believed to be so composed because of his father's tendency to fidget when sitting still without anything to read. Meanwhile, the Walton painting is of a younger family and is unusually informal for its time: like the Hockney, it is a sort of snapshot of family life, but one in which the father's book-reading is interrupted (his finger is sandwiched in the middle of a book) as he turns his attention to his wife and young daughter.

Other family relationships are explored, too. A particularly striking trio of young sisters, painted by John Singer Sargent (The Misses Vickers (1884)), shows the close relationship of the siblings, whilst their poses seem to reveal some differences in their personalities. An unusual painting by Joseph Clover, The Harvey Family of Norwich (c.1820), shows only the faces of the family in question. Whilst there are some remarkable similarities in some family members' facial characteristics (no doubt in part due to the tendency in portrait painting to romanticise faces, for instance by making the eyes almond-shaped), there are others who look wildly different, inviting the viewer to question why this might be so. The painting Melanie and Me Swimming (1978-9), by Michael Andrews, invites viewers to question and examine the father-daughter relationship depicted. Meanwhile, the mother-baby relationship is represented by Henry Moore's Mother and Child (1953), in which the suckling child appears rather large, and almost aggressive in its desire to be fed. A more tender relationship is evident in Rodin's bronze sculpture Brother and Sister (1891).

In Family Matters, heritage and inheritance are important themes (which clearly overlap with some of the other relationships), and these are explored in the most wide-ranging way, from the traditional – paintings of wealthy families – to the more abstract. Perhaps the most unusual representation of these ideas can be seen in Donald Rodney's In the House of my Father (1996-7), a large photograph of Rodney's hand, in which is a tiny sculpture of house built out of his own skin, which was removed by operations to combat sickle cell anaemia. Genealogical records, by which people are able to explore their heritage, are encased in a glass cabinet, as are albums of family photographs.

This is an immensely enjoyable exhibition, giving the public a chance to see some works of art by familiar, and not-so-familiar, names in an unusual context. The Great British Art Debate "is all about what art means to you, and what makes great art in Britain today"; Family Matters is very much in pursuit of this mission statement.

Family Matters: The Family in British Art , at Tate BritainJulia Savage reviews Family Matters: The Family in British Art at Tate Britain.4