Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Camille Pissarro: Paris at Night - tactile representation of Impressionist art

The National Gallery’s Art through Words series opened 2012 with a painting by the Impressionist Camille Pissarro of  a Parisian street scene at night and during the rain. 

An Impressionist painting in the dark sounds a tall order for people of the visually impaired community, but the National Gallery team met the challenge.  There were around a dozen visually impaired people and with companions that made over 20 people altogether.  The speakers/describers were Sara and Linda. 

Sara introduced Pissarro with dates and background.  Pissarro was active politically and would also rent a room at the Hotel Rusie in Paris and do a series of paintings of street scenes, of which this was one. The painting is of a convenient domestic size being 22 inch by 26 and is in oil.  You can read about Pissarro at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camille_Pissarro .

Sara had made a sketch of the painting which, with software and special paper, had been transformed into an A3 sized tactile drawing of the painting, with black and white contrast.  I found it difficult to disassociate a map from a painting at first. Sara then went through perspective lines. I was still having difficulty in getting the lines from my fingers to imprint the lines of the buildings and the lines of cabs in a busy street scene.  Eventually the penny dropped.  At this point we were given an A3 reproduction of the painting. 

The painting is very dark (it is Paris at night after all!) and reminded me of those postcards one could buy all over the world titled “x at Night”.  The lines of the building could be made out and there was a reference point in the form of a street lamp.  Electric lighting had been introduced in Paris but was still relatively new  when this painting was made. Pissarro was an Impressionist so the figures for people and other forms are suggested rather than drawn.  In my mind I still had the idea of a drawing and a plan rather than a painting. This may explain the questions I was asking about the height of the buildings and on which floor of the hotel Pissarro had painted the view. 

Pissarro has a lamp post with the light shining in a ‘figure foreground relation’,  which was painted giving the impression of a lit lamp and as part of a row of lamps.  These lamps give another perspective line.  In Sara’s tactile drawing, the lamp post is a key to the navigation of the painting itself, as is the intersection of the diagonal perspective lines based on a line of carriages on the bottom right hand diagonal, which continues through the vanishing point to the skyline on the top left.  The other diagonal line going from bottom left to top right is mainly an awning line going through the vanishing point to the skyline to the right. 

I find it easier to prop the tactile drawing on a wall and ‘read’ it with my fingers as one would read a tube map, for example, on the underground by following a specified underground line to give an indication of the route. 

One of the participants, with limited vision, thought that the tactile drawing had encouraged her to give the actual painting a second chance whereas the reproduction was too dark to discern much.  Another thought the perspective lines helped her to ‘frame’ the picture.  I was still a little confused and switched from ‘looking’ down on the painting to looking at the painting held vertically in my hand.  While I am quite happy painting with the canvas flat on a table I still ‘look’ at a painting as I would a book that is at an angle or in a vertical plane. So it was with the tactile drawing, which I now held in my left hand and touched the lines and features in my right.

We discussed the painting and the background of Paris which had been remodelled with the Hausmann designs and the wide boulevards which replaced the narrower streets. Topics such as the Paris Commune, cars and Hansom cabs, Franco Prussian War, Pissarro and conscription, the Dreyfuss Affair and the coming of electric lighting to both Paris and London were also raised.

The treat of these moments is when we move on through the National Gallery to the painting itself.  It looked a lot brighter than the reproduction suggested and the perspective lines were quite clear in my mind. Although we had been given close ups of the painting, no figures could be discerned apart from blobs of paint, which is what it is.  In passing this painting I would have recognised it and as Sara said it would look good above a mantelpiece.

Many thanks to Sara and Linda at the National Gallery for a lot of research and being able to answer all the questions which arose during the discussion. 


On returning from the National Gallery I was invited to “watch” a TV programme about painting and the night.  This would have been just as good as the radio as all the subjects were either done in the dark or were about the “dark” The presenter Waldemar Januszczak was interesting though the subjects were tangential in that the subject continually changed and tended to religiosity. Nevertheless it was informative about candle light, gas light and even starlight.  I learned about the coming of gas and gas lighting in Arles and Van Gogh painting ‘Night Café. There were also some weird photographs about steam locomotives so I was entirely transfixed about that subject.  Not having a television I appreciated this programme though it added little to my knowledge on Paris by Night. The programme ended with the Rolling Stones ‘Paint it Black’ and this seems a suitable point to close.

Also, the Guardian published an article on a pavement artist who draws.  I find this aspect of street art fascinating and made a comment in the section in the Guardian.  This is the link to the paper's discussion with comments on perspective and perspective lines in drawing and painting: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/feb/01/3d-street-art  It fits in rather nicely with street scenes and my comments seemed to have been appreciated by late night Guardian bloggers.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Elizabeth Stuart - Winter Queen of Bohemia: Portrait by Robert Peake

Update: 9th March, 2012

During the describing of the picture of Elizabeth Stuart in January, the National Portrait Gallery arranged for the photographer Anthony Luvera ( www.luvera.com and
Anthony_Luvera on Twitter ) to take photographs of the group.  Because of my hip problems, I was unable to attend the February description at the NPG and Esther Collins for me to have a sneak peek of some of the photographs which the NPG are planning to use on their website.  Many thanks to Anthony for snapping me in front of the portrait of Elizabeth Stuart.  This will give you an idea of the size of the portrait at the NPG.

*** end of update

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London gave a talk for the visually impaired on a portrait of Elizabeth Stuart by Robert Peake.  (http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/event-root/january-2012/picture-description-portrait-of-elizabeth-queen-of-bohemia-26jan12.php )

Professor Whitestick meets Elizabeth Stuart at the NPG
(courtesy Anthony Luvera)

Elizabeth Stuart (19 August 1596 – 13 February 1662) was born in Falkland Palace in Fife, Scotland.  Falkland Palace is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland and is well worth a visit as it is not far from Dunfermline and Edinburgh. 

Elizabeth was born to James VI of Scotland and his wife Anne of Denmark so making her a princess in Scotland.  When her father became James I of England after the union of Crowns in 1603, the family moved from Scotland to London.  Her brother Prince Henry was the heir apparent, though died of typhoid and her other brother Charles became king on the death of King James I. 

The painting is life size and shows Elizabeth at age 14 and in the status of an English princess dressed in the Jacobean style of the time.  More information on the portrait can be found on:

and an enlarged copy of the portrait can be seen on:

The audio description of the painting was given by Lesley and there were about 5 visually impaired people and several visitors.  The painting is in Room 4, which also has paintings of James I and Shakespeare in it. 

Elizabeth takes up all of the length of the painting and the triangle base covers most of the width with her two feet just showing beneath a raised skirt.  Her dress is predominantly shimmering cream silk forming the triangle from head to toes.  There are vertical lines with the skirt.  Part of the Jacobean costume involved the skirt being draped round a farthingale.  A farthingale is a form of corsetry using ‘whalebone’ made from the jaws of a baleen whale, a toothless whale which filters food from water.  The skirt is draped over the farthingale giving the impression of the wearer gliding over a floor.  In the portrait, Elizabeth’s feet can just about be seen when I moved close to the actual painting in the gallery.

Lesley described Elizabeth’s complexion as fair with rosy cheeks and lips probably coloured with cochineal.  Her hair is raised in what could be described as a bouffant or beehive look.  Her forehead appears to be higher due to some of her hair being plucked as was the fashion at the time.  She’s wearing jewels in her hair with a coronet tiara.  There is also a double ruff round her neck.

She is said to have inherited her good looks from her mother and not from the Stuart side of the family!  She has blue eyes, almond shaped, and a fine nose, unlike the Stuarts who had round fat noses and droopy eyes.  She is shown with her hands resting on the farthingale with long fingers and standing on a Turkish carpet; Turkish carpets were fashionable at the time in London.  To her left is a Chair of Estate which indicated her rank as a royal princess of England. 

However, being a princess in a Protestant country her marriage opportunities were limited to non-Catholics, so many of the European households were ineligible.  She was betrothed and married to Fredrick V, who was Elector of the Palatinate in Germany.  Apparently, she did not think much of German culture at the time, being versed in French court protocol in much the same way as her grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots had been.  As a child, Elizabeth was raised to become a queen consort under the guidance of a Scottish noble family at Linlithgow prior to moving to London. 

In the early 17th century her marriage would have been the start of a new life with little expectation of returning to London.  Although the marriage was a happy one, it turned out to be unlucky for her as Frederick was chosen to be King of Bohemia, when the Czechs decided to decline the nomination of the Hapsburg emperor for their king.  Elizabeth became known as the Winter Queen of Bohemia and gave birth to Prince Rupert just as the religious wars in Europe during the counter reformation caused them to flee Prague Castle and move into exile around 1619-1620.  Frederick died while they were living in The Hague, in the Netherlands. 

Professor Whitestick meets Elizabeth Stuart at the NPG
(courtesy Anthony Luvera)

Lesley described her dress with the threads coated with silver gilt and spangles and how the artist had painstakingly reproduced the detail and jewels in her dress.  Discussions amongst the group were had regarding the cleaning of such garments and whether Elizabeth had a body double to model the costume while the portrait was being painted as well as Elizabeth’s connections in London during her later life.  She was still a child when the Gunpowder Plot with Guy Fawkes occurred in 1605, though she lived to see the restoration of the Stuart family after the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I.  However, she was separated from some of her children as they either married Catholics or in turn became Catholic.  She retained her Protestant faith while in the Netherlands.  She was said to have had relationships and was described as the Queen of Hearts.  One of the group mentioned a building in the Strand area of London with connections to her.

Many thanks to the National Portrait Gallery for a very interesting 90 minute talk around the painting.  The NPG Bookshop has a selection of postcards, though none of Elizabeth Stuart.  However, a postcard of her father James I / VI is available, with the painting located next to Elizabeth Stuart’s in Room 4.  Also, NPG has an attractive little book titled Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries by Charles Nicholl which is on sale for £5 and available in the bookshop.  In hardback and with 110 pages, it has many colour plates. 

A later painting of Elizabeth Stuart by Gerrit van Honthorst is owned by the National Gallery (NG6362).  It may not be on display at the moment but here is a link to it on their website: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting/virtualtour/#/room-24-B/


Lesley also talked about the background to painting and artists at the time of Robert Peake.  There were many influences from the north European renaissance, with Flemish and German artists and craftsmen having an influence on the English market. 

There is currently an exhibition of royal manuscripts at the British Library.  I haven’t been to this exhibition due to my lack of mobility, but I have the catalogue and it is proving to be an interesting source of information.  I heard a comment on the radio about a new exhibition at the British Museum on the Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca) that the catalogue may be more interesting than ‘peering at tiny manuscripts in a crowded exhibition.’  This illustrates neatly the importance of audio description at the Wallace Collection in the case of manuscripts, and the royal portraits in the case of the National Portrait Gallery.  There was a continuity of skills as illuminated manuscripts featuring kings and government transformed into the art of portraiture and many of the skills in gilding were transferred to painting.  I hope to visit both the British Library and British Museum exhibitions with sighted friends and some prior knowledge of the exhibits. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Earl Kitchener of Khartoum by von Herkomer and Goodall, c1890, NPG

A portrait of Earl Kitchener (Horatio Herbert 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum) was discussed on the 29th of December 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery in London.  The gallery holds these events on the last Thursday of the month for the visually impaired. (http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/event-root/december-2011/portrait-of-horatio-herbert-kitchener-1st-earl-kitchener-of-khartoum.php)

I was a bit early and so asked for Room 23 as I entered the building on the Minus 1 level.  There are various entry points to the National Portrait Gallery and I still get a little confused when entering the building.  I entered through the shop and approached one of the guards near the revolving doors.  I was taken to the painting on level 1 by a side lift (elevator). This painting is not the memorable one frequently used in posters of the type “Your Country Needs You” so often parodied in theatre and TV programmes: 

I had the chance to roam around the gallery room of Victorian military and explorer “types” and recognised a painting of Queen Victoria in a huge triangular dress receiving a potentate of some sort. Another “type” caught my eye and another attendant read out the caption and told me that the group which had gathered on the ticket and information desks on Level 0 was on its way.

The group of about 10 gathered and sat around Lord Kitchener while Fran made some comments.  Images of Miss Brodie lecturing her class should be discounted; the group have a hinterland of their own and are not a group of impressionable schoolchildren.  The programme for next year was handed out for the regulars though the website may be more interesting for some background to the portraits being discussed.

An interesting approach of the NPG is to have the actual painting in front while descriptions are made.  Measurements of paintings, whether in metric or imperial, can be tricky if no means of making sense or comparisons of dimensions are available.  Fran neatly solved this problem by standing in front of the painting and describing some of the features with reference to herself.

The painting shows Kitchener in military dress and standing against an horizon of Middle Eastern landscape.  The portrait was done by Sir Hubert von Herkomer     while the drawing of the town was done by Frederick Goodall. 

Kitchener had blue eyes and some eye defects and this was described to us.  Kitchener had said that one of his eyes was slower than the other thus accounting for his being a “bad shot” and not proficient at sport when he was at school and in training.  Remarks were made about his moustache and the fashions of beards and moustaches were discussed though I did not offer myself as a tactile object!  I described the life mask of Henry Wellcome at the Wellcome Collection and as if on cue Fran produced a bust of Sir Edward Elgar for us to touch.  The bust had been brought up just in case!  In touching the bust of Welcome, I first encountered his moustache whereas in the case of Elgar I hit him on the nose.  The life mask is not the same as a bust sculpted by an artist.  This illustrates the different information obtained on either a “touch tour” or “handling sessions”

There were probably three people attending who had an interest in military history and had family connections with WW1 (First World War).  Some comments regarding Kitchener’s “pips” were made, as well as his sword and belt.  His right hand is shown holding gloves and a pith helmet. The left hand holds a red book and I asked a question about the relative difficulty of drawing or painting a gloved rather than an ungloved hand.  (I had been to a gallery tour at the National Gallery concerning Titian’s drawing skills being criticised by Michaelangelo!)

There was a discussion about uniforms (the dress is beige coloured against a sandy background), with collar styles and insignia mentioned as cue points for further debate.  We were informed by one of the participants that Kitchener was wearing a collar of the Prussian Army style and that this was the model adopted by the US Marines.  (I mentioned this to an American who exclaimed “Well I never!”)  Some had a relative who had been in a French cavalry regiment during WW1 and comparisons with family photographs were made.  Kitchener was painted in 1890 in a Victorian tradition which was common practice at the dawn of photography.

Topics such as the British Empire, Sudan, religion, freemasonry and mapping were discussed.  Kitchener was said to be High Church Anglican and from Ireland so what was the red book he was holding?  Tractarianism and the Oxford Movement were floated in discussion. 

Kitchener had been involved with mapping Lebanon and the area around Gaza.  British cartographers left their mark in Iraq and Saudi Arabia (Shakespeare) and in India (Everest) as well as the Ordnance Survey itself.  I have always enjoyed maps and have been encouraging the easier access to tactile maps. For Christmas I was given a copy of Map of a Nation by Rachael Hewitt who recently broadcast in part of the Freethinking essays on BBC Radio3.  This is a treasure trove and I found myself updating my Arniston post and that was only getting as far as A on the A2Z of the index. 

The subject of Sudan had been brought to the Radio4 Today programme which had been edited by guest editor Mo Ibrahim (from Nubia in Sudan/Egypt) So, the recent unravelling of Sudan and other border disputes were also discussed.  References to Khartoum and Omdurman were made and as no one mentioned Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army, I uncharacteristically kept quiet.


This was my second portrait description at the NPG and was again a painting with some subjects worth exploring. At the beginning of the talk, Fran said that instant feedback and interjections from the group were to be encouraged. In what was a bleak day weather wise in London, this visit brightened the period between Christmas and New Year.

In 2012 topics include Elizabeth Stuart (Winter Queen) and her father King James I/VI.  (http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/event-root/january-2012/picture-description-portrait-of-elizabeth-queen-of-bohemia-26jan12.php) There is no need to reserve a place in the group and it was pleasing to meet two of the regulars at other events.  If, like me, you tend to be early, you can always ask to be taken to the painting to judge for yourself the real thing. It is always possible to ask “Who is that”

Geometry of Portrait:

We were given an A3 reproduction of the portrait and at home I keep them in a clear plastic folder with a slight (green?) tinge.  This allows some extra contrast when viewed with a low voltage lamp.  I can make out that Kitchener takes up about 80% of the length and about 80% of the width when centred. On top, his head is square rather than being oval and his arms form triangles, with the elbows forming the apex, though asymmetric.  He is cut off mid thigh and a triangle is formed with his tunic and legs. An inverted triangle forms the torso and a smaller triangle appears below the belt line. In the background I can make out a mosque with minaret. Seen this way, everything is monochromatic though the fine drawing and lines are fairly visible in my peripheral vision.  The portrait is fixed in my mind and though I can’t see his eyes, I know where they are, and that they are blue.

More information on the portrait can be found on:

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Year 2011 Round Up

This year (2011) has been my first year on a blog and, when combined with Twitter, has given me some sense of connection with the outside world and allowed me to retain some level of independence.  As a visually impaired person I have to get all my information through audio (I do not know Braille) and sometimes one forgets that in communication one has to make up for the non verbal part of social discourse. 

Several themes run throughout the blog and these are more or less consistent with my Twitter output.  I have deleted only a few tweets mainly on account of errors in twitter punctuation and grammar.  My tweets reflect my own exasperation with some of the world’s politicians, though I have also taken a swipe at some aspects of “jargonista” and management speak when heard in the Health Service and sometimes on air. 

The year finished with a Hogmanay Party and I managed to make a few tweets into the small hours of the New Year 2012.  I have gone through my blog adding new labels and making a few updates where I feel there may still be interest or there have been developments. 

I have quite a few blog posts in preparation though my reading of books has been limited of late on account of the very mild winter in South East England. I seldom listen to books or music when on the move. On the basis that one should not skip through music or literature, I can only cover events as they happen.  I can just about listen to some radio in the background and using headphones can use the computer, though if a phone rings on radio or in the house I scramble to a phone and get the wires tangled and before I know it I answer the phone wearing headphones. 

I may allow myself a bit of Cognitive Dissonance but there will be some tales to tell in 2012.  Meanwhile I wish all readers of this blog all the best for the New Year and thank all those who have helped. Some have asked not to be named. 

My Hogmanay party reconstruction is shown below.  On this occasion, another kind friend had taken me shopping for some party food.  This was quickly used as was much of the drink and the photograph contains evidence which will now be visually described for the visually impaired! 

The first Monday in the new year was known as handsel Monday, though usually pronounced hansel.  Traditionally, children would pester relatives saying they had been given a new wallet/purse/bag/clothes with pockets and so needed something to handsel the new accessory.  This was usually money, silent money being preferable though coins to jingle were also part of the ritual.  This probably goes back to a benefactor in Edinburgh known as George Heriot, who was known as Jinglin' Geordie.  George Heriot's School is named after him and I have vague memories of my grandmother telling her grandchildren to pester her sisters for something to handsel new clothing.  This shows the pester power is nothing new!

Dr Whitestick Jr is going to describe the photograph:

Starting from the left and moving across to the right, there is a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck champagne, a bowl of fruit containing a melon, oranges, lemons, bananas and an apple, a box of panettone on which rest two music cassettes – one of Jim Mcleod and the other of Calum Kennedy; next to this is The Professor’s Mongolian hat and to the far right is a cafetiere and a cup of coffee.  In the front stands a bottle of Tokay from Hungary /Tokaji Aszú (1991, 3 Puttonyos) and a plate containing sliced mango from Brazil and dates from Tunisia. There are also two cds in the middle: one of a group called Mánran and the second of The MacDonald Sisters.