Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Royal Academy: Johan Zoffany RA :Exhibition “Society Observed”

** Update 7/4/2012

Zoffany's paintings capture much of society at the time.  It is interesting that Zoffany records lectures given by Professor William Hunter on anatomy to the Royal Academicians.  In the 18th century, the distinction between arts and science may have been less clear cut.  Here is an exchange I had with Athene Donald on her blog concerning Erasmus Darwin and Dr Johnson:

The Zoffany exhibition also covered the role of women or rather the lack of it in gatherings of the Royal Academy for a life-class.  Next door to the RA is the Royal Society of Chemistry, whose new president will be Professor Lesley Yellowlees -

** end of update

The Royal Academy still has the David Hockney exhibition “A Bigger Picture” running and it has proved to be very popular.  ( My post on this exhibition can be found on

With the Hockney taking over the 1st Floor there is a more intimate exhibition on the 2nd Floor in the Sackler Wing of paintings of Johan Zoffany, who was famous as a society and court painter in the late 1700s.

A friend met me at an Underground station and we went to Green Park by Tube.  With my crutch and cane combination I find going down steps a major problem. (I have to manage 39 steps at home) I found getting on an escalator was not too awkward though getting off an escalator is very tricky.  I can do this normally but with a crutch trailing it is painful on stepping off. 

That said we entered the Royal Academy in Burlington House in Piccadilly.  One of the stewards asked me at the steps if I needed any help in the galleries, a kind gesture which I much appreciated.  We took the lift to the 2nd Floor and having been kitted out with audio guide, entered the exhibition.  At this point I was beginning to resemble a scarecrow as I had my sunglasses round my neck, headphones on head, cane in left hand, crutch on right hand, audio controls round my neck and my straw hat on head! 

The audio guide has 5 selected paintings for a detailed geometrical description.  These are aimed at the visually impaired visitor and if you can recognise a large mark by the caption or ask for some help in hitting the right buttons, conveniently push buttons starting with number 5, you have the option of an introduction to the geometry followed by the usual options on art history, curator Martin Postle’s notes and notes by other art historians.  

Zoffany catalogue - a portrait

The first painting in this group was David and Goliath (No 51) The introductory commentary was useful in setting the scene for Zoffany and his earlier commissions from the Archbishop of Trier and an Elector Palatine in Germany.  Classical Greek themes and Old Testament stories were staples of some commissioned work and there is a painting of the Sacrifice of Iphigenia in Aulis.  I studied this play by Euripedes and “saw” it with my father in the National Theatre in London not long after I lost my sight.  Greek plays are ideal for visually impaired people as there are few speaking roles at any one time on the stage. This painting was more crowded but my friend read out the caption and we moved to David and Goliath. The geometry of this painting is very well explained.  It shows David with his torso twisted and his left shoulder twisted to the viewer and the left arm bent at the elbow forming a V shape.  Goliath is slain and David is holding a pebble?

( On my laptop I can just about make out the V-shape on this site:

The next theme is theatrical as Zoffany was on good terms with David Garrick and some of the paintings on display are on loan from the Garrick Club. Garrick was said to be a nightmare as far as sitting for a portrait is concerned.  There are scenes from various plays.  Some are well known some are rarely if ever played today.  There is a scene with Lady Macbeth and her dagger.  The play needed no introduction as all Scottish schoolchildren had to study “The Scottish Play”.  We missed number 52 and had to find it for the description. 

Zoffany had the knack of getting the dramatic, if overacted, point of a drama.  What I found fascinating was that I could make out both the candlelit lighting apparatus and the light shining on the actors on the stage in an almost frozen moment.  This is similar to what I remember of strobe lighting, which was all the rage in my younger days (an advance on the 1960s revolving mirror). Zoffany manages to freeze a moment of action and the audio played a section of the text (husband about to strike wife with dagger).

There are sections with Zoffany in the Royal Academy and with the Royal Family.  There is a painting of a talk with Professor William Hunter from the RA on anatomy.  Another painting shows the RA gathered in a life class, though 2 women are represented by their portraits shown on the wall.   

Zoffany was in demand as a portrait painter and his works also include conversation pieces as well as family groups. There is a portrait of Gainsborough and family groups of the boys and girls of the Earl of Bute; as well as one of the famous Sharp family, who were musicians and celebrities of the time.

A described painting was that of Lawrence Dundas with his family, house and possessions on display.  Dundas had collected 17th Century Dutch paintings and these are shown in the wall in the background and on an adjacent wall.  Zoffany had meticulously painted the paintings on the wall of the painting.  This resembles the new Dutch Galleries at the Wallace Collection or the Torrie Collection of Dutch Paintings on show in the Georgian Gallery in Talbot Rice in Edinburgh.  The painting gives an inventory of the accumulated wealth of some families.  Another painting exhibiting wealth was that of Charles Townlee. 

 Self portrait of Zoffany, surrounded by postcards, inspired by the Dundas painting.

The next theme of the exhibition was Zoffany in India.  There are many paintings of British Colonial officials and some of the East India Company.  Warren Hastings is featured as are some local royals. 

The final paintings show looting in Paris during the French Revolution and the destruction of Paris. No doubt some of the treasures found their way into the collections of some of the more magpie collectors.


A very enjoyable visit.  The Royal Academy are to be congratulated for clear descriptions of the geometries found in each painting of the 5 paintings selected.  I would encourage this development in unescorted visits.   These explanations also stop one becoming a pest if viewing with friends, which forms half the fun in going to the gallery. 

The friend who took me has known me for 32 years and this was the first time we had been to a gallery together since I lost my sight. He also tuned into the visually impaired selections and learned a lot more. The size and aspect of the dimensions are clear as is the navigation of the subjects in the painting.  Lighting is an important feature of the works and Zoffany illustrates lamps of the period.  My sighted friend tuned into the audio descriptions himself and discovered more than he had found on his first visit. While I enjoyed these 5 selected paintings I also enjoyed the others once the captions had been read. 

The Royal Academy offers assistance if you ask for it. This exhibition has a few bottlenecks in common with many exhibitions. It may be a result of timing or an engrossing audio but I found the only hazard was my hat which I ought to have checked and my sunglasses which got tangled with the audio. I bought some postcards and treated myself to a catalogue.

Paintings with full titles

David with the Head of Goliath

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew

Thomas King as Touchstone in ‘As You Like It’

Mr and Mrs Garrick by the Shakespeare Temple at Hampton (today this temple still exists and in the River Thames is a houseboat owned by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd!  Access by local bus R68)

Venus Marina – “recalls frolicsome allegories of French Master Francois Boucher”

David Garrick and Mrs Pritchard in ‘Macbeth’

Dr William Hunter Teaching Anatomy at the Royal Academy – big lamp, stage, audience including Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy – includes Zoffany

David Garrick and Mrs Cibber as Jaffier and Belvidera in ‘Venice Preserv’d’

Three Sons of John, Third Earl of Bute

Three Daughters of John, Third Earl of Bute

The Sharp Family

Sir Lawrence Dundas with his Grandson – paintings by David Teniers the younger and Jan van de Cappelle in the background

Prince Jawan Bakht (Jahandar Singh)

Warren Hastings

Hasan Reza Khan

Royal Academy related posts:

My post on the RA Summer Exhibition 2012 can be found on:

My posts on the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy can be found on:

My post on the From Paris - a taste for Impressionism exhibition can be found on:

Saturday, 24 March 2012

British Museum exhibition - Hajj : journey to the heart of Islam

The British Museum has an exhibition on the Hajj. This is the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) and at this point I realise that I am going to have to put some things in context.

In the early 1980s I worked in Saudi Arabia for a Saudi company based in the Eastern Province.  This is the Gulf side of the country and not the Hijaz side, where Makkah is located.  Second, the spelling of names which are only truly represented in Arabic can be a problem for those using a screenreader.  I am going to try to use commonly accepted English spellings and will try to give an indication of the sound of the Arabic using Jaws (in American). This may not look attractive to my sighted readers!

The Hajj is one of the 5 pillars of Islam and should be undertaken provided one is able to satisfy certain conditions like finance and health.  Given that the Hajj was underway from the 7th Century AD, I note that I have to explain something else.  The Muslim calendar is based on 12 lunar months and is about 11 days shorter than our solar year.  The British Museum has a policy of using AD and not CE which is sometimes used in academic circles in order not to offend.  My blog is hardly academic but it ought to be obvious that fixed events in the Muslim Calendar do not match the solar calendar; hence the month of Ramadhan occurs earlier every year. 

The Hajj attracts up to 3 million pilgrims from all over the world and the majority arrive in Jiddah (Jeddah) at the Hajj terminal.  Muslims usually have to travel on a Hajj visa accredited to a country of nationality.  For expatriates living in Saudi Arabia there was some control on the frequency of completing the Hajj.  There is also a lesser pilgrimage known as Umra and this is combined with the Hajj for those who are making a first visit. 

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, the Hajj was one of 2 important dates in the year, the other being Ramadhan.  At the end of both there were the Eids or feasts. These are often known in local names in countries such as Turkey but in Saudi Arabia the two Eids were Eid Al Fitr (Eed al fitter) and Eid Al Adha (Eed al Add ha).
The Eid after completion of the Hajj was known as the feast of the sacrifice when it is customary to slaughter a sheep giving some of the meat to the poor. In the 1980s this could be done in person or by purchase of a voucher.  The Hajj rituals follow in much the same pattern of a journey out, ritual, worship, meditation and celebration and the journey back home. 

When I lived in Saudi Arabia there were only 2 TV channels I could receive (the only occasion I have owned a TV) and during prayer times the channels would switch to the sunset (maghrib) prayers and evening (Isha) prayers, and during the Hajj the TV channels were almost exclusively Hajj related.  Channel 1 was in Arabic and Channel 2, which started when I was there, was in English, French and some Asian languages.  Prayers are set by the sun so prayer times in the East of Saudi Arabia were much earlier than those in Makkah.  This meant that TV screens almost always had views of Makkah and the Hajj rituals going on and one became familiar with the ritual, locations such as the Ka’ba, Arafat, Muzdalifa and Medina (Madinah). 

Men have their heads shaved after completing the Hajj and it was obvious that all their friends and colleagues knew where they had been for the Hajj Holidays. Saudi TV also put out notices that the time allowed after the Hajj visit for private business was up and that guests ought to leave the country.  Any expatriate who has worked in Saudi Arabia will have similar anecdotes about the country. 

I had changed planes in Jiddah and when travelling to Jiddah from London (coincidentally it was Easter) I had boarded a Saudia flight and was travelling in Guest (of God) class.  Jiddah airport has a Hajj Terminal to process the many Hajj charter flights.  Over the centuries Jiddah became a cosmopolitan city and many Hajjis (courtesy given to those who have completed the Hajj) did not return to their country of origin.

I was invited to a private view of Hajj:Journey to the Centre of Islam at the British Museum.  Under other circumstances I would have gone on my own but as my mobility is restricted I have based my report on this private view with access to the project curator Qaisra Khan.  I went by cab with a Muslim friend and we were admitted at 6.30 to the
Great Court
and welcomed with Middle Eastern snacks and fruit juices. 

Before leaving I had tweeted mentioning Qaisra and we duly met her and chatted before the brief introduction to the viewing.  Qaisra had gone herself on the Hajj in 2010 and though going as part of her own spiritual journey also went with a curatorial hat on, as well.  The following are my notes I made on returning from the exhibition and the twitter exchanges with Qaisra on getting back home.

-        Circumambulatory in approach to reading room, clockwise before stairs (lift access available). Sounds of Adhan (call to prayer Allah Akbar-God is great) and scenes of pilgrims in Ihram (white pilgrim garb)

-        Kiswah and Sitara  covering of the faces and door (respectively) of Ka’ba in Makkah. This one had the late King Fahd written or rather sewn into the black cloth with silver thread and this gives a filigree appearance on my peripheral vision.  Tradition of covering Ka’ba in pre-Islamic times with different colours.

-        Exhibition divided into three main themes such as :Journey, Makkah and Medina,  journey taken home and souvenirs

-        Queen Mary Tudor atlas for Philip of Spain with map of Arabia.  Mentioning  of Arabia Felix(Yemen) and Arabia Petra(Jordan)  and “Saracen Cathedral.  Muslim atlas same time 16th century showing south at top.

-        Very Old Quran 

-        Cairo Kiswah workshop and black and white film shot in 1918 showing procession of Mahmal mounted on camel and banners of caravan which “started” from parts of Ottoman Empire when Sultan claimed Caliphate.  Damascus and Cairo were traditional starting points.  After formation of Saudi Arabia by Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud) control of Holy places made by Saudis with Makkah workshops. 

-        Tradition of Egyptians painting houses on return from Hajj. (I have seen this in Luxor)

-        The construction of the Hijaz Railway cut time to 5 days from 40 days. Istanbul (Haydarpasha station on Asian side of Bosphorus)to Medina.(Mad eenat al Moon a war ah) was built and surveyed under some German influence. In the First World War, destroyed in 1918 (Read TE Lawrence of Arabia Pillars of Wisdom) 

-        Compasses for Qibla. Muslims face Makkah and during prayers all face Ka’ba. 

-        The circumambulation before is done in anticlockwise direction.

-        Pilgrimage is associated with travel, accommodation, money exchange and there were many examples of coins, tokens, guidebooks, vouchers and even some Hajj currency issued by the Government of Pakistan (Rupees from 1950s). 

-        Dutch East Indies (Indonesia ) Ache prayer book of local imam who had surrendered to Dutch control.  Different roles in colonial authorities over Arab and Muslim populations.  

-        There are many books with large illustrations on top.  While there are few figurative art works as graven images are “frowned” upon, there are nevertheless examples of Alexander the Great, said to be the Dhul Qarnan mentioned in the Quran.  These books resemble Book of Hours with verse and some illustrations. 

-        Complete mahmal and sitara doors to Ka’ba

-        Keys to door and bag to carry key.

-        Coverings and belts for Ka’ba renewed in Cairo though Kiswah made fresh each year.  The Ka’ba is never left uncovered as the Kiswah is unrolled another is rolled out from the top.

-        Indian Gujarati paintings with Mughal style.

-        The exhibition covers Makkah and Madinah and there is some reference to Jerusalem as the point and direction of prayer in the early years of Islam.  There are engravings of Jerusalem with the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.  The Night Journey is described in some books and prints.

-        Names of prophets family and descendants are embroidered in large letters and I could make out some of the shorter names such as : Mohammed, Ali, Hasan and Hussein.
The majority of Muslims are Sunni as opposed to Shia.  Much of Shia history is based in Kerbala and Najjaf in Iraq while Iran (Persia) has a majority Shia population.  Following the death of Mohammad, there were disputes resulting in eventual schism after Ali the Caliph and his two sons Hassan and Hussein. Many Shia rituals will celebrate and commemorate events in the lives of Ali, Hassan and Hussein in ways disputed by many Sunni Muslims. 

There are 4 schools of thought or Fiqh in Sunni Islam with some differences in interpretation of Shariah.  There are quite often some marked disagreements over some timings and precedence and this has resulted in friction at the Hajj.  The Saudi King is styled as the “Custodian of the two Holy Places.

-        Verses of the Quran containing the opening words of the Fetiyah  “Bismillah al rahman al rahim” (Biss me la al raha man al ra heem)could be discerned as they are printed on every piece of formal mail.

-        God or Allah has 99 names in the Quran and often the names of men are styled as “Servant of God, using one of the 99 names. Servant is Abd in Arabic so names such as Abdallah, Abdalaziz and abdalrahman can be recognized.

-        There were drawings of the sanctuary in Makkah with diagrams of Haram and sanctuary, some of them drawn in 3D effect.

-        Water takes a leading role in many pilgrimages. Many Roman Catholics treasure water from Lourdes, some Christians would have some water from the River Jordan and Muslims like to take back bottles of Zam Zam water.  Examples of this were shown.

-        One of the delights for me were the mementos of St John Philby.  St John Philby was the father of Kim Philby (the double agent) and had converted to Islam.  He had been an advisor to Ibn Saud and is mentioned in Wilfred Thesiger Book The Arabian Sands.  Philby had the Ford Motor Company franchise.  Philby left a collection of brushes used to sweep the Ka’ba.


For me this was a memorable visit as I was able to discern many objects I had seen only on Saudi TV or in the form of images. The serendipity element was also there with items from St John Philby and the Hijaz Railway. (There is a stop on the Hijaz Railway at Madain Saleh and this is a famous Nabatean (Petra) site in the peninsula.) The mahmal was a complete surprise and as it is so large I could not miss it.  There is also something about a black and white film played on a flat screen and I could make out a lot.

One of the insights Qaisra mentioned was that the original installation of the artists impression of the Jeddah-Makkah highway sign (advises non-Muslims to exit now!) had pointed to the emergency exit and so had to be relocated! I had never seen this sign but know many who have driven there.  

The books are mainly printed on paper and I could make little of them but the British Museum has placed large prints or drawings of some of the illustrations.

Before the exhibition I had some twitter exchanges over the value of buying a catalogue at all and one reviewer suggested that one ought to buy the catalogue and skip the exhibition altogether. There has also been some criticism of the British Museum pandering to the Saudi Authorities. Having been to the British Museum and having enjoyed the Persians exhibition this had been arranged with the loan of the Cyrus cylinder to Iran and it appears that with diminished Iranian contact the British Museum can rise above diplomatic and political intrigues.  The Cyrus cylinder has been returned to the British Museum following an exhibition loan in Iran.

As a visually impaired person I found a lot to enjoy and I was given much additional information by Qaisra at the event.  I have mentioned before that the British Museum is usually able to offer some extra assistance if you contact them.  There are tactile and large print guides available as well as an audio tour, which is free for the visually impaired.

I have not used the following websites but these may be useful.Related websites of interest:

Mysteries of the hajj revealed as British Museum opens exhibition on Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca

The Twitter Exchange with Qaisra Khan is as follows:

Looking forward to visiting #HajjExhibition tonight with a talk by @QaisraKhan to guide us on our way round.
@ProfWhitestick it was an absolute pleasure to meet you at the #hajjexhibition I hope you enjoyed it- I had a wonderful evening.
@QaisraKhan It was a surprise how much detail I could detect on kiswah on peripheral vision #hajjexhibition A great evening, thanks

@ProfWhitestick that's absolutely wonderful! Am so pleased!

Many thanks to Qaisra for guiding us round and for sharing some insights.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Blind Chemist: Future Cities Royal Society of Chemistry Road Map

Update 4/4/2012

The lectures and discussion can be 'viewed' on-line at: .

** end of update
Future Cities Policy Event - Friday 16 March 2012
Sustainable Future Cities has been highlighted as one of the top challenges that the chemical sciences can help to address in a changing world. 

I was invited to participate in the first evening of a special series of policy lectures for 2012 run by the Royal Society of Chemistry, bringing together research leaders in their fields with policy makers. The event took place at the Chemistry Centre in Burlington House, London.

There were two lectures and there was a panel discussion on the related science policy issues, followed by further informal discussions over drinks and snacks.  The Lectures were delivered by Dr Richard Miller of the Technology Strategy Board and Professor AbuBakr S. Bahaj of the University of Southampton.

These events bring a wide cross section ranging from some retired people like me and those working in several fields.  Sustainability may be a buzzword but the ideas are not new, certainly not to chemists, and it is worth noting that after the International Year of Chemistry, the Royal Society of Chemistry is maintaining contacts across disciplines and sectors.  This was apparent in some of the questions which followed both lectures.

I attended a conference when at school for young scientists in 1969 and the theme was “Man and his Environment”.  In 1985 I was at a conference in Berlin (West) concerned with chemicals.  The buzz then was growth and predicting demand in China.  At this conference one of the speakers from a Japanese Sogo shosha (trading house) remarked on the Chinese worker carrying their lunch to work in a bamboo lunchbox, and would it not be a good idea to convert the Chinese bamboo lunchbox to one made from polystyrene.  The forecasters were busy working the demand for ethylene, benzene, ethyl benzene and styrene monomer.  At this time a large expansion of petrochemical production had taken place in Saudi Arabia and was to be followed by many Greenfield units in the Gulf, South East Asia and Latin America. 

In 2012 we have the reverse, with many natural materials “replacing” synthetic ones.  This has had mixed results with cloth bags being used in a highly non sustainable way.  I have commented on the “Lucky” bags on offer at the EdinburghBook Festival last year.  Biofuels have also had a mixed press with resources being transferred from food markets to meet the gas guzzling demand of some countries. 

The evening was recorded and though not webcast at the time will be available on the web soon.  Broadly, the lectures covered the following:

• concept of sustainability
• economic statistics relating to current infrastructures in our cities
• current predictions for population growth, and impact on city growth and infrastructure requirements
• the key role of chemists in reducing this impact
• current research being undertaken and technologies available
• an examination of ‘technological’ solutions within the wider context of economics, politics and social practices (i.e. behaviour)

I made a few mental notes and though they are not directly concerned with the cities theme, nevertheless fit into the sustainable “box.”

Futurology may be verging on science fiction and it was interesting that someone from the Arthur C Clarke Award was present.
Peer to Peer is a phrase which often crops up with platform and trading as a mechanism for doing away with the “middle man”, whether it is in banking and finance or in energy trading

While the decarbonising of economies was treated as a given, modes of transport have to be discussed within a city and between the city and beyond cities for leisure. 

The thought of living in Metropolis did not sound too attractive to this post modern visually impaired person. 

Developments in personal electric transports were raised and I thought a flying carpet was mentioned. 

A point was made by Professor Bahaj that behaviour was unpredictable and that forecasts were not always correct in retrospect.

Electric bikes in China cost Euro 250 versus Euro 750 in Europe.  One had visions of Chinese commuters going to work on electric bikes and burning of the fat in the gym fitted with a peer to peer energy trading system.  This raised issues of battery storage and life.

The insurance industry was now calling some of the shots in valuation of building and development such as Swiss Re and Willis Re.

Materials for the manufacture of magnets say in turbines were easily recycleable compared to those used in mobile phones and consumer electronics.  This harks back to the work of Mike Pitts and Hywel Jones described in earlier posts. WIMS

Thermal insulation of buildings was mentioned especially the layers of materials which can be sandwiched between the walls.  The development of an alternative to paraffin wax, which has been used as a phase transfer temperature control, joined with prospect of buildings and glass Photovoltaic systems for energy transfer.  An example was made of a large building in Dubai which generated power and reduced the energy demand for air conditioning. 

Innovation in pumps and design of materials was proceeding but architects and engineers had to be more imaginative. 

Chemists are ideally suited to “improving” some of nature’s processes be it in photosynthesis.  No doubt those specialising on Moral and Ethical issues view us as creators of Frankenstein products and there has been some concern at aspects of bio engineering in agriculture, silviculture and the creation of monoculture industries based on Palm Oil and Eucalyptus for feedstocks.

This was an interesting range of subjects which were covered and there were a healthy amount of sceptics to ensure no one got too carried away.  Energy and sustainability are issues to which I shall return and will add comments and updates to this post.

Many thanks to Andrea and Charlotte of the Royal Society of Chemistry for looking after me.  The RSC has various twitter accounts and RSC_RoadMap may be of interest as could be the Hash Tag #FutureCities
Full report on:
Summary report on:

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Wallace Collection: Rubens The Rainbow; Illuminated Manuscripts;Dutch Gallery Opening and Creative Writing

***Update 19/9/2012
Tweet exchange on Ask a Curator Day on Twitter

#AskACurator How long did it take to move Rubens Rainbow from Great Gallery to new Flemish Gallery @WallaceMuseum

@profwhitestick It took a whole morning, from 9 till around 12.30, 6 people, 2 window cleaning ladders, one picture carrier on wheels and...

On Saturday 10th March I went to the Wallace Museum.  At 7.30 that morning the intercom buzzed and the post delivered a set of paintings from Living Paintings.  The paintings had a weather theme and included Rubens The Rainbow, Turner’s  Temeraire and a Hockney. 

The Rubens must have been stuck in my mind and when Jackie called in to see me, we decided to go and meet the Rainbow and some other familiar paintings.  Jackie had taken me to the ‘Genius of Illumination’ exhibition and has been hooked, like me, by the subject. 

On arrival at the Wallace I hobbled in on my crutch and cane combo and the staff offered to take me upstairs to the Great Hall to see the Rainbow. I can manage to climb up stairs, and the stairs to the landing and the Boucher paintings are spectacular so I wanted to show them to Jackie.  As a general rule I find it easier to find my way to a destination and by following the Ariadne principle of a “reel of cotton” can manage to retrace my way back to some familiar point.  However, we got the details of the lift to get back down again as coming down stairs with a crutch and whitestick combo is tricky! 

The Rubens landscape “The Rainbow” is the match of “Het Steen”.  This other painting of Rubens is in the National Gallery and it was on a tour of landscapes which included paintings by Claud Lorrain, Sisley and others that encouraged me to go to the Wallace in the first place.  

After strolling round the Great Hall and admiring Rubens Rainbow, Jackie recognised the Hals “Laughing Cavalier” and the painting of George IV. On the way I noted that the Canalettos had been moved from downstairs and I could recognise the themed section with ships in harbours such as those by Bonington. 

Cover of monograph on Bonington published by the Wallace Collection

We then went to the illuminated manuscript section in the 16th Century room on the East side of the first floor.  To my surprise I could recognise 3 out of the 4 manuscripts we had discussed at a previous ‘Sensations’ event for the visually impaired.  It may be that I can recognise some feature of the illumination with a change of light and having an experience of more of the genre at the British Library.  Jackie also recognised some of the features or recurring themes such as the Wheel of Fortune and Boethius.

Other themes are mainly drawn from biblical stories and the Wallace Collection has many cuttings and scraps taken from books.  In normal circumstances these single sheets were viewed privately from a book and were not on display.  There was also the issue in the Grand Tour that books were taxed while single sheets of vellum were not. 

The Wallace Catalogue is a good read and it has been added to my library.  Having encountered these themes in the visible pages (on show in complete volumes) in the British Library, it was possible for the pair of us to “recognise” similar themes in a collection of scraps of pages and cuttings out of books.  This practice was common in the 19th Century. I was by now able to decipher the initial letters and we went through the alphabet of illuminations. 

Later, we stopped at the bookshop. One section has the Wallace imprint of catalogues and the gift shop has a general selection of other catalogues and art books covering subjects which may be found in the Wallace.  The Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace were true magpies in that they collected themed items as well as collecting other collections.  The illuminated manuscripts were catalogued in 1975 but the catalogue is out of print.  The bookshop gave me the title and found me books of other publishers on the Olivetan Gradual and the Metropolitan NY catalogue.

We found some copies of the guide to the Wallace Manuscripts and their black and white illustrations which are easier for me to discern.  This was a real discovery. 

Cover of "Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscript Cuttings"
published by the Wallace Collection

The bookshop staff also dug out a monograph on Bonington which had been out of print.  (see earlier picture in this post) I am gradually filling my manuscript details on the blog and will try to consolidate previous posts by linking them. 

The Wallace kindly gave me the images for my blog for the 3 paintings I could recognise.  Jackie recognised the presentation of the infant Christ to the 3 Kings, though it is too small and mainly a shock of white under lighting for me to make out much and I still find the copy which the Wallace gave us easier. 

These scraps and cuttings are an ideal way to stimulate an interest and it shows how much can be done for those with impaired vision to enjoy these paintings and objects.  I took part in an afternoon event in the Wallace Museum and have been in touch with Catherine and Edwina who can arrange special events and if you have any questions can offer help.  The Wallace Collection is worth wandering around and the illuminated manuscripts had me hooked into the subject.

Dutch galleries

The Dutch galleries reopen at the end of March 2012 with new lighting, it should be much better for partially sighted visitors to appreciate the paintings.     I especially like the boat scenes in some Dutch paintings.  My peripheral vision picks out perpendicular lines and ships’ masts are a good example.  Church spires are also discernible.  Many Dutch landscapes have big sky and quite flat “horizon” lines and there is something about the northern European skies which I find attractive.

Creative writing

Creative writing is something that is not obvious as an activity for the visually impaired; we tend to be thought of as listening to books as opposed to writing them.  It may be the scientist in me and as well as being somewhat cynical about a genre such as “Creative Writing”, but when listening to a book I can often be put off by language which adds nothing to the narrative.  There is a shout of “Get on with it” when I hear too many adjectives and adverbs.  In that regard I can be a rather grumpy old man.  Having “read” the 1980 catalogue description of the manuscripts, I can vouch for there being not a wasted adjective.  (The BBC Radio 4  In Touch programme had an audio book review and I agreed with one of the panellists regarding Peter May the author of Blackhouse.)

The Wallace Museum afternoons are called Sensation and I have the following details from them.  You never know and your own creative writing may end up in “print” or in any suitable alternative format.

Sensation! What’s in a Letter?

Wednesday 11 April, midday-1pm - please join us for lunch, bring a packed lunch.  Tea and coffee is provided.

Event runs from 1pm-4pm

This event is for blind and partially sighted visitors.

Find out more about the characters of the collectors of the Wallace Collection, including the 3rd Marquess of Hertford, who inspired the character of Lord Steyne in Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and the 4th Marquess whose character is revealed in lively letters to his agent.  Discover their personalities, see their tastes in art and reveal your own character in some creative writing.

Free but booking essential on 020 7563 9577 or

In wrapping this post I am including a twitter exchange involving touch, audio and a screenreader involvement in art discussion. I may not be able to make the Wallace Museum event as my hip operation is scheduled about then.

@seeingwithsound @acuity_design Just back from Wallace Museum Checking perspective lines of Rubens Rainbow using my peripheral vision

@ProfWhitestick Found image of Rubens' Rainbow at and used The vOICe yellow filter to make rainbow stand out in sound

@seeingwithsound Serendipity: or synchronicity as I "saw" original and it was in a box of tactile paintings which arrived this morning

@ProfWhitestick Nice, are these tactile paintings on the market? If so, where?

@seeingwithsound They are more thermoform from UK charity @LivingPaintings I have recently joined.

@ProfWhitestick @LivingPaintings Thanks, good to know! Now found painting listed in Album 29 "Weather in Art"

@seeingwithsound Mr Postman (Royal Mail) delivered the weather box at 0730, the postman buzzed once