A picture is worth a thousand words, says a proverb coined at the new dawn of advertising. But words are all I have to convey the images that I cannot see. And most people seem to think that someone who is blind has no interest in art.
My love of art took me on a 10,000-mile search for paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites in museums and galleries around the world – but it wasn’t always easy for a lone blind traveller.
My first experience of the visual arts was a tour of the regional Hazelhurst Gallery three years ago. Before this, my understanding had been confined to other people’s descriptions and what I had read in fiction.
The tour was organised by Vision Australia (the organisation I currently work for) and was audio-described: a volunteer guide explained to me what each of the paintings looked like, as well as its composition and stylistic inimitability. Kaye, the volunteer guide, relished her part, including what she liked and disliked, what was unique about each painter and their style. In her words, the flat canvases came alive.
In August 2015, I spent a morning alone in London, wandering among diamonds and gems in the South Kensington museum complex. My welcome had been less than cordial: ‘You should’ve told us you were coming,’ the harassed, somewhat embarrassed attendee said on my arrival. Which was a weird thing to say, because I am just as impulsive as every other tourist.
I sat down in the William Morris Tea Room in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Between sips of elderflower cordial, I thought of the famous man commemorated there.
Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
I studied arts and music, and so am more familiar with the construction of poetry than the demands of the job market, and I find Morris a fascinating figure – here was a man who made a success out of his love for history and the arts.
A few years ago I read the Children’s Book by AS Byatt, which begins in the V&A, where Julian, one of the protagonists, lives. My V&A reality didn’t have the clarity and precision of the novel. The place echoed with tourists. The precious treasures were kept behind temperature-controlled glass cabinets, fixed to the floor and locked. It wasn’t that I expected any different, but I couldn’t shake the disappointment of not being able to touch.
My mind wandered, settling on an artist as skilled in language as painting: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Somewhere in that building, they held some of his works. If only I knew where.
Rossetti had an economical, highly descriptive way with words that described scenes so vividly.
The blessed damozel lean’d out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters still’d at even;
On my journey back to Sydney, I read more about Rossetti. As I delved deeper into his complicated life, I began to build a profile. He was a man who had a terrible obsession with the past. He was named after Dante Alighieri. The two men lived centuries apart, yet were bound by a shared inferno.
When his wife and long-standing muse Lizzie Siddal committed suicide, Rossetti buried a series of poems with her, which he then exhumed a decade on. By that time, he had immortalised her in a series of paintings entitled Beata Beatrix. He mourned her with the same fervour as the other Dante mourned his dead darling, and yet Rossetti still continued a secret affair with Jane, the wife of his friend and business partner William Morris.
There’s always a sense of missing key things in the forest of online information. Google searches lead to details, descriptions and provenance. Most of the descriptions are designed to tease – mere glimpses of the real things. They never convey the full story contained in the stretch of a canvas.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales holds one painting by Rossetti: a self-portrait of the artist in the wedding of St George. His late wife Lizzie is the rescued princess, his siblings the king and queen. Lizzie had been dead for two years when he started the painting.
The day I visited, I had little expectation other than enjoying a day out with my friend from university. Emily has an eye for detail and the vocabulary to match: she can put a name to colours, texture and compositions; the foreground and background; the attention, the intention and skill.
We visited the Pre-Raphaelite hall to see the Rossetti. An exhibition of the greats was on at the same time, giving us a chance to see the real Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including masterpieces by Titian, Botticelli and Poussin.
A few months later, armed with a few opening chapters of my novel, I made the trip to England to visit the Pre-Raphaelite collections. I wanted to know what being a painter is really like through the medium of their paintings.
Enquiries to the Birmingham Art Gallery and Tate Britain had gone unanswered; it was time to try a more direct approach. So it was with a feeling of ‘I can’t hope for too much’ when I contacted the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to tell them that I’d like to visit the following day and would appreciate it if someone could accompany me around. The staff member put me on hold, then informed me that he would guide me himself.
My time with Ed, who had worked at the gallery for more than ten years, was the most productive visit I have ever had, and still stands out as the highlight of my research. Museums are, traditionally, a treasure store for people to view, not necessarily touch. But he let me run my hands along the frames of the paintings, giving me a chance to feel size and dimension. (Of course touching the canvas was out of the question, and I respected that.)
Ed showed me Edward Burne-Jones’ the Star of Bethlehem, the largest watercolour painting of the nineteenth-century, which was commissioned by the gallery in 1890 (Burne-Jones came from Birmingham). Ed described the painting in detail: how the subject was composed, the tiny details that made up the story and how they became the hallmark of Pre-Raphaelite movement. I brought with me a Victorian dictionary of flowers and we deciphered the meanings of strewn petals in the Pygmalion series.
Ed pointed out the difference between something drawn from life and from memory. We discussed how a portrait study could be superimposed in a different setting – a feat that couldn’t be replicated in photography until very recently.
The Birmingham collection holds a version of Beata Beatrix showing a young woman sitting suspended between life and death. A bird drops its red poppy between her open hands – perhaps a reference to her eternal sleep, or the addiction that augmented her depression. The museum owns many studies of Lizzie Siddal in various poses. Yet without the muse to hold his gaze, there are gaps between the strokes that composed Lizzie’s face. Rossetti was unable to finish this painting at the time of his death. It was later completed by his mentor, Ford Maddox Brown.
I bought a catalogue and book of reproduction postcards at the shop. Later, as I shared them with friends, I realised how valuable they were. Each friend would point out the details that caught their eyes as I relayed what I knew about the paintings.
‘You should’ve given us more notice,’ said the accessibility officer of the V&A when I returned to London. ‘I did email a few months ago and didn’t hear anything,’ I offered. I had imagined three days was long enough, but apparently not. The best he could do was to assign a couple of volunteers to guide me.
We walked through the wide, spacious halls to the British section on the fourth floor. Again, I was struck by how vast the collection was, though items were either encased in cabinets or mounted on pedestals. The volunteers punched keywords into a database for me, coming up with a number attached to tidbits of information. They didn’t know what to do with a determined blind tourist who seemed to know more about visual arts than they did. We found a series of stained-glass windows co-designed by Rossetti and Morris. One of them went in search of The Day Dream, one of Rossetti’s most famous paintings housed there, but the trail ended at a patch of blank wall.
Finally, somebody suggested I find Rina (another volunteer on the next shift), who could take me to the Botticelli Reimagined exhibition the Museum was running.
Rina and I found Day Dream; it had been moved to the new exhibition because it was influenced by Botticelli. There were no Lizzie Siddals here, but plenty of references to the Rossetti and Morris team. Rina described the blossom of honeysuckle in Jane’s hand – a symbol of devotion that eludes to their affair.
‘Can you tell what he thinks of his muses?’ I asked, still unable to merge the man’s character with his works.
Rina paused for a moment. ‘He thinks of them with reverence. You could see it in how careful he is with the way he portrays them.’
‘That is interesting, given that he was not very nice to them in real life.’
I was grateful to Rina for the back and forth, which makes these interactions different to online descriptions or pre-recorded guides. ‘Thank you for making my day,’ I said. ‘You made mine,’ Rina replied. ‘ I never think of visual arts in this way.’
Mindful of the lesson, I contacted the accessibility officer at Tate Britain a whole week prior to my visit. ‘We’re sorry we can’t accommodate your needs,’ I was told. Unperturbed, I arranged to meet another friend, Sal, there. We went through the shop, where I got a book of Rossetti’s paintings. I also bought a print of William Everett Millais’ Ophelia. He had painted Lizzie Siddal lying in a bath. After the sitting she caught a terrible cold, because the candles that were supposed to keep the water warm went out, but the finished work was so different from that tepid bath. Apparently, Millais went to a verdant bank of the Thames and painted it, superimposing the drawing onto the scene.
We were advised to go to the 1840 Room, which contains most of the Pre-Raphaelites. We found Ophelia, The Awakening Conscience, Christ in the House of His Parents, Our English Coasts, The Lady of Shallott and others.
Sal is an actress and interpreted the subjects based on their poses and facial expression. We found a series called Past and Present by Frederick Augustus Egg. It tells a story of a woman’s adultery. Number one depicts a man and a woman. The man is quite upset. He is holding something in his hand. The woman is on the floor, pleading. The second painting shows her outside. The third is of her and her children on a moonlit night; the glow from a small lamp illuminates her face. The scene is stark and dark, its moral present in every line. We’ve come a long way since she walked out of that house.
‘It’s strange how people assume just because I’m blind, I won’t be interested in art,’ I said over tea.
‘You certainly have a way of bringing out seeing things. I don’t usually look at visual arts with that level of detail,’ Sal said.
Back in Sydney, armed with notes and half-remembered descriptions, I returned to the NSW Art Gallery. A greeter directed me to the reference library. ‘This is a long shot,’ I said, ‘but is there anyone who can check some details on the Pre-Raphaelite works with me?’ An enthusiastic intern was happy to pore over books and answer my questions. It was a makeshift kind of support, but if there was a right response, that was it.
Lead image: crop of The Day Dream (V&A Collection).