Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Catherine the Great:An Enlightened Empress - National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh

22nd August 2012

I was interested in going to this exhibition as I had been to St Petersburg (it was called Leningrad then) in 1975 and had been to the grave of Catherine the Great.  She and Peter the Great were the only czars who were on show in Soviet times.  From memory Peter the Great had more flowers.  Then I spent 4 days in Leningrad on a British Council sponsored trip with the National Union of Students.  In those days there were mandatory visits to the sites of Soviet history, the Great October Revolution etc.  I remember visiting the Winter Palace, Petrodvorets (view of Cronstadt) and the Peter and Paul fortress.  I also remember viewing the city from the top of St Isaacs Cathedral (Museum) with the babooshkas warning people not to take photographs.  We went round museums and galleries but were soon “tombed” out. 

I won the catalogue for this exhibition in the Chambers Street Museum in a Twitter RT competition.  Having had a few pages read to me, I decided I would need about 3 hours to get a reasonable idea of the scope.  While the objects are but a tiny part of the Hermitage stockpile, this innovative exhibition manages to convey part of the Russia ruled by a German aristocrat for a long period in the 18th Century. 

I entered the museum via the sliding doors in Chambers Street and a guard took me to the information desk.  This is located to the right on entering.  I told Anne about having won the catalogue in a Twitter competition and that I had been to St Petersburg in 1975. 

Anne made a phone call to the exhibition team leader and suggested a way of having me guided around by exhibition staff between rooms.  She then took me to the exhibition floor.  My guides were Hannah, John and Magda.  (I have sadly forgotten the name of a 4th guide!)  They read out the room guides and object labels as well as describing the objects along with explaining the exhibition settings and charts. 

In addition to the objects, the museum has designed connecting doors which mimic the panelled doors with white/yellow and “eagled” symbols engraved.  Some rooms seemed to have a carpet painted on the floor and I was struck by the city scenes and landscapes which framed some of the objects.  The huge sleigh is an eye catcher.  Some of the portraits are too big for me to make out details but Hannah was able to fill in the gaps of the Catherine series and those of Empress Elizabeth. 

I recounted my memories to a friend who noted them down and we tried to match my memories of the objects with items in the catalogue.  Two days later I went back to the museum and a guard took me to the museum shop.  I described my memories to Sarah who took me up to the “merchandise” section.  I treated myself to a silk tie, a trinket box and some postcards and said how much I had enjoyed the visit and that my 3 hours had gone too quickly. 

The following are notes taken from memory and identified with catalogue entry.

I was struck by Catherine’s baptism into orthodoxy and objects relating to the wedding, birth of children and death of Empress Elizabeth.  Objects relating to the coup against her husband and her swift coronation were also interesting.

Development of arts and humanities evidenced by busts of Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau. 

There was also a strong link with Scotland in the construction and running of the Cronstadt naval base and barracks.  This involved the installation of dry docks, ordnance from the Carron works in Falkirk and planning.  Scottish medical staff were also at the forefront of military medicine and surgery.  Personalities listed in the catalogue include Dr Guthrie and Charles Cameron, the architect.  There are drawings of the plans for buildings in St Petersburg. 

Some art forms are difficult for me such as detail on porcelain and tapestries which are faded.  In these cases, John was able to describe much of the designs painted on the porcelain and some of the curiosities from the various dinner services.    

A huge sleigh within the exhibition (catalogue #161)

Heraldic eagle and Catherine monogram as letter E (ekatarina)

Portraits of Catherine throughout her life. 

Hannah had mentioned her favourite piece was a furniture item and I asked Magda about it.  It is in the cameo section near the end of the exhibition, where Catherine, the great collector, is featured with prize objects from antiquity and the Old Masters themselves.

Furniture cabinet for cameos

Old Masters:
Claude’s Landscape with Christ on the Road to Emmaus #225
Darius Opens the Tomb of Nitocris #221 – remarked about yellow slippers
Rubens: #227 and #223.  Heavily cordoned for security
There is double hanging of the Old Masters at the end.

#28 – Catherine II departing from Peterhof on the day of the coup d’etat
#29 – The Swearing of Allegiance to Catherine II by the imperial guard of the Izmailovsky regiment on the morning of 28 June 1762

Toys for imperial children – working models for rifles and pistols
#179-#190 – smallswords and replica guns

Curious ornate coconut cup (#26) – not sure what it was used for.

Samples of glassware and porcelain from St Petersburg and Meissen (#s 4,18,19)

Portrayal against Peter the Great

Gilded wood on red velvet

Tree of descent from the Kiev Rus or Ruric.  This is a claim to legitimacy mirroring that of the medieval manuscript.

Ballot boxes (55,56)

Figures of people of Russia: woman from Kamchatka, Estonia (#50)

#52 – Dissertations Sur Les Antiquites de Russie

#58 – View of the Palace Embankment, St Petersburg, from Vasilyevsky Island
Mentioned to John that had been on island in 1975

#87 – card table – wondered how it folded out
#90 – rules of behaviour – read out – penalties for disobeying them
#142 – Catherine as Minerva – reminded me of Boethius with Catherine personified as philosophy. 

 #32 – described as a small painting.  If this was small, wonder what a large one would be like!


This is a fascinating collection of period pieces reflecting the power, ingenuity and charm of Catherine the Great.  Her legacy was to first build on that of Peter the Great and then to out rank him with her achievements.  The admission ticket allows a break in viewing and I missed a few of the military and naval campaign memorabilia. 

The Scots were present in their traditional role as witnessed by the material about Guthrie, Cameron, Greig and Knowles, including the attempts by his secretary Robison to engage James Watt.  General Tam Dalyell had also been a soldier of fortune in a previous age. 

There is a lot of material to take in and I found the method of ‘guiding’ suggested by Anne worked well with me.  For example the painting of Darius opening the tomb was described to me by Magda.  Persians were always described as being “shod in yellow slippers” from the time of Herodotos in the 5th Century BC and Western Art still portrays them as such. My question to Magda was answered by “He is wearing yellow sandals.”

Many thanks to all the museum staff. 

There is a selection of attractive postcards with notes from The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, including:

Equestrian Portrait of Catherine II by Vigilius Eriksen, Danish, signed after 1762

View of the Palace Embankment, St Petersburg, from Yasilyevsky Island by Johann Georg Meyr, German, signed and dated 1796

Count Alexei Bobrinsky as a Child by Carl Ludvig Christineck, Swedish, signed and dated 1769

The Apotheoisis of James I by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1623-33
The following note is on the postcard:
This is a sketch for the central painting of Ruben’s famous ceiling in the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace in London, which was commissioned by King Charles I.  It shows Charles’s father, King James VI and I, being browned with a laurel wreath by figures personifying Religion, Faith, Justice, Victory and Minerva, on his way up to heaven.  Acquired from the collection of Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, 1779.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition is titled Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress and is published by the National Museums of Scotland

More information on the exhibition can be found on the museum's website:

Monday, 27 August 2012

Edinburgh International Book Festival, Charlotte Square

11th August

Charlotte Square is the large square in the West End of the New Town of Edinburgh.  The square is transformed for the Book Festival and there are a lot of events in the main tents and studio areas. 

I visited the square on the first day, a Saturday.  We had been walking along Heriot Row and paid our respects to Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) before dropping into the square for a coffee, enjoying the sunshine and hearing book fans queuing up (standing in line) to hear their favourite authors.  Alexander McCall Smith was the attraction and I almost bumped into actor Simon Callow who was apparently taking a photograph. 

Entrance to the festival is free and the programme is very interesting as it is not just about book plugging, although there are a lot of book signing opportunities too.  Some of the talks are quite serious, philosophical and there are even some science sections.

I can’t resist doing a repeat of my “lucky bag” scene from last year. In the Saturday evening only the Scotsman were offering a goody bag” for £1.30. The contents were as follows: Scotsman Paper, a limited choice of books, a Robert Burns CD and coffee and sweets.  A great tradition. 

According to the Book Festival Green “policy” a green friendly canvas bag is being given for book customers. Hmm.

August 24th 2012

I went to Charlotte Square and the Scotsman seller outside was filling a plastic goody bag for the Friday issue.  This was £1 with Robert Louis Stevenson Kidnapped in graphic comic format, another Burns CD, coffee and sweets. I noted a few Guardian canvas shoulder bags being carried around.  

On entering the Book Festival site I made some enquiries of that evening’s events.  A very helpful staff member ran through the schedule.  From the Daisy CD which the festival had sent me by post, I could navigate to what was on on a daily basis.  Some of the events had been sold out but I was advised that returns were usually available in an hour before the event. 

I had been interested in a Simon Armitage and an Alastair Darling talk.  I was recommended to try out the Amnesty Scotland talk about Imprisoned Writers and was ticketed (this is a free event) and guided by Alva to the tent (Peppers Theatre) where the talk was about to start.  Alva checked that I was aware of the decking and facilities and at the theatre Sophia guided me to my seat. 

Speakers included Ron Butlin, Emylia Hall and Jane Rogers and an interesting selection of readings were made with extracts from Zimbabwe, Iran and Colombia.  In the case of Colombia I was unaware of the everyday life of a primary schoolteacher who has to carry a loaded gun to school.  The school is in a rundown area of an energy rich province and little money trickles down from the sale of hydrocarbons.  I expected drugs instability from news reports but our coverage of Colombia Is usually limited to the cocaine cartels. 

This was a very thought provoking meeting and though we take for granted some element of free speech and ability to write, it is worth listening to those people from countries with no freedom, whether from state sponsored terrorism or from effective “wilful blindness”.  I had been to Bogota in the 1980s and had hoped things had improved. 

At the end, Sophia came to my seat and as I wanted to hang around for a returned ticket, I asked to be taken to a coffee outlet (There is a choice of bar or signing area.) I picked the signing area and enjoyed eavesdropping on comments as I was drinking my coffee. 

I checked the box office for returns and estimated the length of the queue. I was going to have to choose between Simon Armitage and Mr Darling, so took a break and joined the returns line.  Having got a ticket I was able to register with the RBS Tent and my name was taken.  By this time I had made friends with others in the waiting area and we talked about tactile crossings, books and screen readers.  A small world I one in this group was a former mobility officer with a later academic record. 

The talk itself was the Conversation style with Jim Naughtie and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Mr Darling has a good radio presence so it was no surprise to listen to him.  He throws in “Across the piece” in almost every interview I have heard him do since Northern Rock and he did it again. Many anecdotes about Gordon Brown, Frau Dr Merkel and the financial crash in the Eurozone.  James Naughtie appeared to be more coherent in this format.  He did not ramble and with an hour in fairly relaxed surroundings (there were hecklers outside) we were treated to an interesting discussion.  The event was well stewarded and I really enjoyed my evening in Charlotte Square. 


Take care crossing over to Charlotte Square as there are steps which appear suddenly.  Use the tactile directional and controlled crossings.  Once inside the area check out the orientation.  For next year, get the event listing and though events may change there is bound to be something of interest.  Some of the Edinburgh visually impaired community were going on the Wednesday evening but had not known about the Daisy CD availability.

Many thanks to the organisers especially Nicola Robson who answered my comments by email and sent me the Audio CD in Daisy format.

I had mentioned that visually impaired people are large consumers of books in alternative formats and that we often buy a hard copy and get it signed.  On the last day of the festival Deborah Levy was speaking in Charlotte Square.  I had met her a couple of times in Camden Arts Centre in London and she not only signed a book for me but also wrote the name and dedication for a gift to a friend as I can no longer write.  So, our book purchases are not just limited to audio books or e-books.  We do spend money on hard copy too!

Related links:

My post from last year’s visit:

Edinburgh International Book Festival website:

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Soutra - medieval medicine meets windfarm technology

“To a traveller coming from the south, the view from Soutra is most enchanting .  Passing for a considerable way through the dreary moor, where nothing meets the eye but barren health, here, all at once, the fine cultivated counties of Mid and East Lothians, with the Firth of Forth and coast of Fife, burst upon his view.  The suddenness of the change, and the mingled group of hills, and dales, and woods, and waters, which now stretch extensive to the eye, give such a throb of pleasure to the heart as is not to be described.” (pp79-80)


Landscape indicating hills of Fife, Forth estuary, Lothians
as viewed from Soutra, Scotland
20 August, 2012
© Prof Whitestick
So wrote the Rev. James Ingram in the New Statistical Account of 1845.  This had been ‘cut and pasted’ from an earlier Statistical Account. 

This view would have been familiar to the Romans, who built and travelled the nearby Dere Street which linked Melrose (Newstead) to the Roman fort at Crammond, to the west of Edinburgh. 

The scene is relatively unchanged and on driving north on the current A68, the 21st century appears with windmills as part of a wind farm development on either side of the road. 
Landscape of windfarm with host of windmills and some sheep in the foreground
from Soutra Hill, Scotland
20 August, 2012
© Prof Whitestick
My father always had a theory that if one could actually see the hills of Fife from either Edinburgh or Soutra Hill (elevation about 1200 feet) it would soon rain.  While not claiming to be following in the traditions of John Gough and Luke Howard (, I did remark about this to the owner of a dog who had made a charge at me in the car park.  The owner had said the dog is after your hat (there was no wind and the hat was firmly on my head).  I commented that this was the calm before the start of bad weather and we agreed. 

At the Wellcome Library the links with science and medicine are openly discussed and I found the John Gough observations he had reported to him inspiring with regard to how visually impaired people can do science, with a bit of help. 

I later went to Carfraemill Hotel for lunch and sure enough, it started to rain while we were having lunch!

Few people realise that going north to the left of Soutra Hill are the remains of an early medieval establishment.  It is known locally as Soutra Aisle and has been the subject of research into medieval medicine. 

Soutra Aisle
Remains of medieval hospital
20 August, 2012
© Prof Whitestick
The site is rather overgrown and the information boards have shown signs of weathering.  There is, however, an Open Day series planned as follows:

Open Days at Soutra

August 25, 26, 27 (Sat, Sun, Mon) 2 PM prompt

Learn about the archaeo-medical investigations

You can also get there on a Munro's bus 51/52.  Ask the driver for Gilston road-end and walk up the hill for about 8 minutes

Some of the captions on the information boards are legible and were read out to me.  They included information on the discovery of a variety of seeds and flowers which have been identified in this location and which were used for medicinal purposes.  These included:  opium poppy, hemlock, juniper berries, coltsfoot, liquorice, common valerian, stinging nettle, St John’s Wort and mistletoe.

The Statistical Accounts are a very good source of history as it was put down by Church of Scotland ministers, many of them with an axe to grind.  It was ever thus, and following the Reformation, Edinburgh Town Council got their hands on the hospital of the Holy Trinity (as it had been renamed), much to the annoyance of the neighbouring Presbytery of Dalkeith in the period from 1560 to 1618. 

“By the seizure of its charity revenues, the ruin of its hospital, and the reduction and afterwards the abandonment of its church, the village of Soutra was stripped of its importance, and brought to desolation.  The seat of conviviality and busy, though doubtful charity, of a great hospital, and of a general refuge for the distressed debtor, the weary traveller, the friendless pauper and the afflicted invalid is now silenced and abandoned to the lonely visits of the mountain sheep.”

Soutra lies on the Lammermuir range of hills, which mark the divide – geological faultline – between the southern uplands and the central lowlands of Scotland.  The area has been fought over for centuries and has switched counties, regions, parishes for as long as I can remember.  Currently, Soutra Aisle lies near a sign welcoming Edinburgh bound travellers to Midlothian, while for those going south, one is welcomed into the Scottish Borders.  The area inspired Sir Walter Scott to write the Bride of Lammermuir and this was used by Donizetti for his opera Lucia di Lammermoor. 

My peripheral vision allows me to pick up the windmills on both sides of the A68, with the high voltage electricity pylons which connect nearby Cockenzie coal-fired power station and the nuclear powered station at Torness (Dunbar) to the Scottish grid system.

The current energy policy of the Scottish government may appear to be at odds with Westminster and the future of nuclear energy in Scotland is under review.  Carbon capture and storage, wind farms and solar panels have been researched locally and there is a prospect of wave-power being generated off-shore in the North Sea. 

More information on Soutra Aisle can be found on the following links:

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Dieter Roth Diaries, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

*** Update : 5/9/12

Visit to Dieter Roth with Artlink Edinburgh

There were 5 visually impaired people gathered at the Fruitmarket Gallery for a description and tour of the Dieter Roth exhibition.  Susan Humble from Artlink co-ordinated and Emily Learmont gave us a description of the installation with the 128 screens. 

Various questions were asked such as the random nature of the individual screening and how it was ‘plugged and unplugged’.  Luckily one of the gallery staff was on hand to explain that one of the three panels had five switches and another six. 

We then moved to the collection of Roth’s diaries – he kept a series of three.  Several of the diaries are open, though not particularly legible, even to the sighted.  We went upstairs in the gallery lift (elevator) which has a frequency-pitch description for going up - itself a sound installation.  We moved along the shelves with the working books of Roth’s collection of everyday objects, including a selection of squashed milk cartons.  Some of these were photographed and made into beautifully bound books which were sold in limited editions by Roth’s publisher. 

After passing the framed (sideways) drawings, we came to the bookcase and shelving units of Roth’s collections.  In some cases, examples are open for people to leaf through.  Roth wrote in German, Icelandic and English and we discussed concepts of what is art. 

During the discussions, Emily raised the subject of the fluxus movement, which included various artists with some connection to Dieter Roth.  This fluxus movement was avant garde and included Yoko Ono, among others, at the time of Dieter Roth’s show in 1970. 

This was a very enjoyable evening which was full of participation.
*** end of update

9th August 2012

The Fruitmarket Gallery is located near the Market Street exit of Edinburgh’s Waverley Station and I enjoyed an exhibition there last year.  The Fruitmarket has 2 levels of exhibition space and Lindsay told me about Dieter Roth as we were staring at 128 TV screens laid out in 16 by 8.  (

I could make out some of the action on the screens as I walked along the 16 columns and making out the domestic scenes in about 4 rows if I bent down or stretched up a little.  The room upstairs has a collection of almost anything that Roth collected, often trash according to his son who appears in a video in the darker seating area.  The video had just been installed.  Dieter Roth had been involved with the Edinburgh Festival in 1970 “having been part of Richard Demarco’s exhibition Strategy: Get Arts”.  This shows how eclectic and avant garde the city was when I was a teenager! 

There are shelves upon shelves with those Leitz ring file folders so familiar in a German household.  Many people filed documents and would have a clear out now and again, but not Dieter Roth. 

The exhibition space upstairs is worth some close inspection, while I can navigate to the items laid out on an open book format, I could not make out much of the doodles and drawings. 

These are diaries and massive memory boxes.  Before the digital age Roth had been recording in film and video tape, then in its infancy.  Some may call this confessional art or the trash of an obsessive person.  I am delighted that through Artlink-Edinburgh I will have a chance to find out more.  I am envious of how he filed things, for a start.

It’s worthwhile noting that the Fruitmarket Gallery has commissioned a permanent sculpture by Martin Creed on the Scotsman Steps.  (  This is a well-known Edinburgh landmark.  When I first descended the Steps I hadn’t noticed it and in an Artlink group climbed up the Steps.  I’ve walked down the Steps twice on my own in different weather and lighting conditions and this provides an interesting access to the Fruitmarket Gallery from North Bridge.

The gallery has produced a short guide to Dieter Roth which is available in large print, on tape and by email.  The contact phone number is 0131-226-8181 and the email address is 

Greyfriars Kirk- Edinburgh Concert Venue and History: Greyfriars Bobby

Greyfriars Kirk played an important part in the history of post Reformation Scotland.  It was the first kirk or church to be built after the Reformation in Scotland in 1560.  The kirk opened in 1620 and was built on gothic lines with the centre of attraction being the pulpit and the absence of any decoration. 

The current kirk has been rebuilt over the years following the troubles with Cromwell, suppression of the Covenanters and the usual bickering with some Presbyterian organisations.  This resulted in one very large church with good acoustics and a useful location for concerts. 

It was here that Scottish Widows was initiated and the Edinburgh insurance, assurance and financial markets got a boost.  Another great poet and tragedian William McGonagall is buried here. 

The approach to Greyfriars is a little tricky though it is not far from the Museums of Scotland and the statue of Greyfriars Bobby.  The road crossings are either zebra or light controlled but Chambers Street, Candlemakers Row, Forrest Row and George IV Bridge converge so take care, especially around Greyfriars Bobby as many tourists take photographs and the pavement (sidewalks) are narrow here.  The statue is even a “landmark” though not large enough to notice.    Much has been written about the story of the dog and much of it too creative.  However, many tourists are attracted to the statue and can direct you to it.

I attended a concert during the Edinburgh International Festival and the link is here:

The kirk has an attractive guide book which I bought last year.  I could pick out the design of the kirk from the roof of the Museum of Scotland and it is not unlike a Dutch kirk with the gables, though the building has often been rebuilt. 

Sunday, 19 August 2012

St Cecilia’s Hall: Russell Collection of Keyboard Instruments and concert, Edinburgh

St Cecilia’s Hall is located in the Old Town and can be difficult to find.  It is near the junction of Cowgate and Niddry Street and tucked “up a side close”.  There are many cobblestones on the way and as Cowgate runs below all the bridges –George IV Bridge and South Bridge - the approach from north or south means a descent on lots of stairs or a trundle down the setts (cobblestones).

St Cecilia’s Hall is Edinburgh’s first purpose-built concert hall and the Friends of St Cecilia’s Hall are active in promoting the hall, collections of musical instruments and the recordings made on the instruments.  They also organise attractive and varied concerts. 

The University of Edinburgh houses many collections of musical instruments and on show is the Russell Collection of harpsichords and other keyboard instruments.  I was able to be taken round the collection, said to be one of the largest in the world.

The harpsichords are beautifully displayed with examples of a Vermeer or a Rubens which had inspired the lid of the instrument.  This is similar to the paintings on cassone in Florence.  Many of the harpsichords were made in Antwerp and the craftsmen were able to commission top artists to paint the lids with oil paints and the soundboards in watercolour.  Flemish and Dutch paintings were used as inspiration for many of the landscapes and scenes.  Vermeer’s pictures such as The Lady at a Virginal or Lady with Guitar hint at something other than courtly love, and the lids of these instruments suggest things may have gone even further - a common theme in Flemish and Dutch art.

The keyboards are also interesting and the captions when read out are very informative about how a clavichord, spinet, virginal and harpsichord work in theory. 

On show are many stringed instruments such as a massive theorbo, harps, guitars, banjos as well as more conventional ones.

Postcards are available and include pictures of:

a virginal from 1668 by S. Keene
a French spinet from 1680
detail of a painted soundboard with the aperture quite noticeable from a single-manual harpsichord by I Ruckers, 1637
Bent-side decoration of a double-manual harpsichord by L Baillon from 1755
Double-manual harpsichord by P Taskin from 1769
Two cards illustrating features on my peripheral vision with the curve and lines of the harpsichords: a soundboard of two-manual harpsichord by Ioannes Ruckers, Antwerp, from 1638; and a single-manual harpsichord with Venetian Swell by John Broadwood, London, from 1793
Soundboard Rose in Parchment from Ottavino or Octave Spinet by Petrus Michael Orlandus, Italy, from 1710
Square piano by Andrew Rochead, Edinburgh from 1805
Painting on Flap Lid of two-manual harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers the Elder, Antwerp, from 1608

I also purchased a cd of recordings of music played on some of the instruments from the Russell Collection.  Many technical notes on the mechanism and even the tuning frequency are provided.  The harpsichords are tuned at A=415 rather than the modern A=440.

What better way to enjoy the collection than to attend a concert showing off the work of the Friends. 

Concert Saturday 18th August, 2012

The Friends of St Cecilia’s Hall has recitals on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons during the Festivals.  I went to one entitled European Odyssey given by the Eden Ensemble.  This featured works by various composers focussing on the guitar.  There were several duets with viola and with piano-forte and to conclude all three played a work by Rudolf Straube (1717-1785).  Apart from Telemann and Giuliani, the others were unfamiliar and included Marin Marais, Benedetto Marcello and Ferdinando Carulli. 

The guitarist, Stephen Morrison, played a guitar from the 19th century.  It was reconstructed from its original parts, having fallen apart.  It is believed to have been made in London by “a French luthier”. 

The pianist was Susan Macleod, who introduced the piano-forte.  This has a wooden frame and not a steel frame and was built around 1805-1810 by Thomas Loud.  (At this point, a memory of Gerald Moore, the famous accompanist, who would always ask of those he was accompanying: Am I too loud?)  This piano-forte was certainly well-tempered as it had to be re-tuned and it was fascinating listening to the re-tuning of this instrument during the interval in the recital.  I was reminded of the scene in Watt by Samuel Beckett of the blind piano tuner.   Susan MacLeod had mentioned that it needed constant re-tuning, as did the guitar. 

The viola player, April Randall, not only accompanied the guitarist, but had to play almost all the bass line in the final trio as the piano-forte tinkled rather than providing a continuum bass line. 

This was a very enjoyable concert and a chance to mix with some of the Friends of St Cecila’s Hall.  We also ran into people who had been sitting in front of us at Greyfriars Kirk during the Iestyn Davies and Arcangelo recital from two days earlier. ( )

The Friends of St Cecilia’s Hall and Russell Collection:

Friends of St Cecilia’s Hall and Museum:

The University of Edinburgh – St Cecilia’s Hall Museum of Instruments:

Information on Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Instruments:

For details of 17th Century Dutch paintings in the Torrie Collection at the Talbot Rice Gallery visit my post on:

Friday, 17 August 2012

St Andrew's Square, 'Edimbourg Plage'

During the sunshine, this square took on the image of Edimbourg Plage in the centre of town.  The city has its own beaches stretching from Cramond and Silverknowes to Portobello and Joppa in the east.  East Lothian companies had been enterprising in promoting their food, leisure and visitor attractions.  Within this square, once surrounded by the financial “great and the good” a renaissance in openness has made the square a popular space.  In the centre of the square is a column with an important figure on the top. For a clue check out my post on Arniston:  

I tried out a bit of golf using my cane; they tried to teach me golf at school- I failed. 

Visually impaired person attempts golf in St Andrew's Square, Edinburgh

Seaside sideshows were good photo opportunities too.

Not quite what the Scottish Colourist Leslie Hunter imagined
for Largo Bay

The Edinburgh Art Festival has a Waiting Place with neat geometric lines which is a treat for inspection from within on a sunny day.  I could make out the gaps in the slats as they make interesting geometric patterns.  This is used for events.

Edinburgh Art Festival's The Waiting Place
St Andrew's Square

Take care when approaching St Andrews square as the Edinburgh Tram construction is underway on one side and more buses than usual are on the other side on account of diversion.

Column in centre of St Andrew's Square, Edinbugh
Guess who's on top? 
(clue: Arniston)


Samuel Beckett's Watt performed by Barry McGovern, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

*** update 13/10/2012

On Twitter, @EdIntFest (the Edinburgh International Festival) tweeted me the following with a link to the podcast of the Conversation with Barry McGovern regarding Samuel Beckitt's Watt.  I've managed to play the podcast and confirm that it was indeed me 'Watt asked' the first question!  Thanks for reminding me of a very pleasant visit to the Hub this year.

@profwhitestick Is that you who asks the first question on the Barry McGovern podcast from his Conversations event

*** end of update

The Edinburgh International Festival included in the programme a one man show with Barry McGovern presenting all the characters in Samuel Beckett’s Watt.  The book has been published and a visually impaired person had said he had downloaded podcasts about it. 

I was unfamiliar with Samuel Beckett’s Watt and occasionally a ‘difficult’ book does not come over very well as an audio book.  Sometimes an initial introduction to a difficult work can be approached via a performance in the theatre.  Beckett wrote plays, radio shows and his understanding of how language works is obvious when the dialogue is heard. 

I booked seats at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and being visually impaired managed to get a concession in a “restricted” view seat.  This was probably ideal as the acoustics in the upper circle are usually better than in the stalls.  This applies in the Usher Hall and in the old Royal Albert Hall.  I have heard pins drop in St Paul’s Cathedral in London and in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

I did not miss a word of Barry McGovern’s performance and my review of it can be found on the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) site:

On Monday I was due to attend a Conversation with Barry McGovern at the Hub. This is located in the old Highland St Johns in Castle Hill at the top end of the Royal Mile (I had a wonderful Raspberry Pavlova or cranachan there last year - ).

The staff escorted me to my seat in the Great Hall of the Hub and I was chatting with some visitors from Brisbane before the Conversation started.  It turned out that they were to go to see both Watt and Electra.  One of them had read my review.  Working in the theatre-coaching branch of academic research, she had experience of coaching visually impaired actors and we discussed audio cues and non verbal communication problems.

Following the Conversation, I was able to chat with Barry McGovern afterwards.  My review of this is on the EIF website:

The next phase was the touch tour of the set at the Royal Lyceum for the Watt show, which had been sold out for the run.

The staff at this theatre are very friendly and I was soon in a group with two describers, companions, a dog and two other visually impaired people.  At the end of the touch tour I was able to talk with some of the others and find that Edinburgh has a group of self help theatre goers, mainly with sight loss later in life and often living on their own.  Some of them also attend the Artlink programmes as well as doing things themselves. 

I was ‘spotted’ by one of the visually impaired persons who had heard me say something at the Conversation with Barry McGovern- we could not have recognised ourselves visually.  Another cried out: “So you are Professor Whitestick!”  Her husband’s guide dog came over for a sniff on the stage.  The social events of some of these access facilities can be useful in getting local tips.

To some people it may have appeared that I had done Beckett’s Watt back to front but, as the show ends with posing a question about direction of travel, I’ll leave it there.

This is my review of the touch tour:

Touch Tour of Royal Lyceum Set for Watt
14th August

A touch tour of the set in a theatre allows visually impaired people to get their bearings from an audio point of view.  The touch tour allows us to walk the set and inspect any props.  Having been interested in what the German language would call Theaterwissenschaft since my student days in Munich, I am always keen to find out how a piece of drama, or any other art form for that matter, works.  This is the scientist in me. 

A touch tour can be done after the event or before. Usually a touch tour is available before an audio described performance.  This had been scheduled, though I had “seen” the show three days previous to the touch tour and had come because I wanted to understand more of the Barry McGovern performance. 

We gathered in the bar and were introduced to each other.  One of the attendees had been to the conversation at the Hub and we would not have recognised each other, but he had heard me pose a question about music in the piano tuner section. It turned out he knew Samuel Beckett’s Watt from podcasts. 

With Watt there are few props and these are used in the beginning and seldom referred to again. However, the lighting in Watt is quite important and I was told about the spotlighting with geometric precision.  For me this is similar to going back to an artwork in a gallery.

We examined the coat stand with the shabby great coat and the hat (was it a Homburg, Trilby or a Pork Pie Hat?).  I lifted one of the suitcases. Barry McGovern removes the coat and hat and puts the cases down.  I had not seen that as I had been in the Upper Circle and only caught a faint glimpse of Barry McGovern on the night. 

We examined the chair and then a snatch of the choral piece, which marks a break, was played - probably as a sound check, but that was a bit of serendipity. As an audio clue and a chance for McGovern to take a short speaking break, I mentioned to another participant that Samuel Becket had written a soprano part which McGovern had filled in.  We joked about not giving the plot away. 

Visually impaired people are constantly navigating by sound, so if an actor moves the sound angles will change.  I can detect lighting changes and these are usually pauses in the performance indicating a change of mood, reflection or a passage in time or even an ending.

The two describers, Bridget Stevens and Rosie Wild, had attended rehearsals and performances in order to arrange an audio description which was scheduled to start some 5 minutes before the beginning of the performance.     At the outset it may have appeared to some sighted people that it would be pointless to undertake a touch tour of a minimal set.   Watt was written during occupied France and marks a switch in Beckett’s choice of language in his writing.   Beckett considered the French language more philosophical and what could be more philosophical than a touch tour of a bare set? Discuss.