Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Edinburgh

Update: 30/8/2012

My second visit to the Portrait Gallery.  Having been inspired to visit Pitlessie in Fife on account of the painting by Sir David Wilkie of Pitlessie Fair, it seemed appropriate to visit the painting again.  On reaching the second floor, we were offered help and on mentioning the trip I’d made to Fife, discussed the painting with a member of staff. 

We then explored the first floor and there is a selection of portraits of scientists.  There are also activity ideas for children including a selection of cards which attempt to engage them with what they have seen.  One is concerned with a portrait of Peter Higgs and the Higgs boson.  The portrait is exhibited along with a picture of formulae on a blackboard.  Another activity card concerns John Logie Baird, “the first person to publicly demonstrate television.”   A third card shows the death mask of Dolly the sheep, who was cloned at the Roslin Institute. 

There is a small exhibition of paintings by John Lavery who was commissioned to paint pictures of the River Forth and some of the defence installations during the First World War.  These include:
The Firth of Forth, September 1917
The Fleet: a misty day, Firth of Forth
The Forth Bridge
The Firth of Forth: Wind
The Air Station: North Queensferry
The Naval Base, Granton
A Deck Hand, North Sea Patrol, Leith
The Aerodome, East Fortune, 1918
Rosyth, the Principal Base of the Grand Fleet, 1918
The American Battle squadron in the Firth of Forth, 1918

Lavery also produced a painting titled German Naval Surrender.  Apparently, unknown to the German officers who had surrendered the German fleet, Lavery was present at the scene dressed in uniform.  The German fleet was later scuppered in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands to the north of the mainland of Scotland.

The bookshop is well worth a search for interesting items.  I bought Portrait of the Nation: an introduction to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  This has a two page spread of Stornoway Harbour which featured an improvement in the form of a herring based industry and incomers with cattle and sheep.  This was also a port from which many islanders emigrated forming the diaspora found all over the world. 

The gallery has innovative ways of ‘looking’ at the people who have arrived and left Scotland, and even leaving a mark whether in history, science or the landscape itself. 

30th July 2012

Growing up in Edinburgh, this Queen Street Museum (the locals used this name to differentiate it from the Chambers Street Museum) housed Scottish Antiquities as well as the National Portrait collection.  From memory we were much more interested in the gruesome guillotine in the historical section than some of the portraits.  We were marched down in school groups and got as much Scottish History as was available only in primary school. My recollection of history and art appreciation at secondary school was more about the US Civil War and WW1 and modern art (this was the 1960s).

With a major investment in the museums and galleries sectors within Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland, the building in Queen Street has been refurbished within and retains an almost neo-gothic appeal, with a nod to King Ludwig and the Marquis of Bute. 

Prof Whitestick outside the entrance to
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Queen St, Edinburgh
30 July 2012

We entered from the York Place, Queen Street end and there is construction work here on the roads.  Take care and keep close to the wall of the Portrait Gallery as you are walking up a ramp and soon a flight of stairs will appear on the right.  If entering from the other side tap the wall. 

At the door a guard indicated the information desk and I asked about general facilities and access for visually impaired people.  The desk contacted Meg Faragher, SNPG Learning Coordinater and has coordination role across the NGS portfolio.  I explained about my familiarity with some of the collection before I lost my sight and while could do the contextual analysis of the Scottish historical aspect, I was unable to see much of the detail. 

We discussed other galleries and I was told that the Edinburgh galleries have started installing Tablet information touchscreens with a pair of listening posts.  They have also invested in quite a lot of recorded audio description but funding for linking this to an accessible format has delayed the roll out at Queen Street. 

Meg had a list of events in large print format for visually impaired people and there is a good programme outside the peak summer.  However, The Drawing Room has been discontinued "due to low take-up".  Getting through to the various visually impaired demographics is difficult.  I have heard these comments in London, mainly when a programme has been disrupted through rebuilding, funds and staff changes. 

Prof Whitestick with Robert Burns
Great Hall
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
30 July 2012

That said we found the shop a real Alladin’s Cave with many books on various subjects which the National Galleries of Scotland had covered over the years.  We took the lift (a huge transporter/elevator) to the 3rd floor and found ourselves staring at Mary Queen of Scots. 

At this point Heather, who had been at the desk, offered to go round the Reformation to Revolution Gallery (1).  This was a real treat and we discussed the characters from James IV to Queen Anne.  These include many “Parcels of Rogues-Burns” and we found a lot of features to talk about: the detail of Henry Lord Darnley, including his sword and feather in his bonnet; the pictures of Mary Queen of Scots as a widow in white mourning after the death of her first husband (she had three) and Mary of Guise, her mother.

Much of the popular knowledge of Mary can be summed up by Liz Lochhead’s poetry, and there is the (ghastly) book written by Antonia Fraser.  Many of the staff in galleries live with these paintings on a daily basis and I found Heather a mine of information on the detail.  For example, I could not make out the sparrowhawk in the hand of the young James VI (it is above a portrait of George Buchanan).  Heather was able to anticipate the unfolding of the history as portrayed in these pictures.  It was fascinating to hear this from another Scot; we probably had put the context of symbology, history and rewriting of Scottish history together in our own ways.  There was a fascinating BBCRadio3 Nightwaves programme which came from the gallery.  Robert Crawford summed up the context best in my opinion. 

This was my first visit to the refurbished gallery and now that I have re-familiarised myself with the building and found some very old chums (pictures), I look forward to dropping in again.  The guards have tartan uniforms and I found many of them knowledgeable about their own favourites.  Last year I had spent a whole day going round Modern1 and Modern2 and at less busy times it is usually possible to find some interesting painting, sculpture or other information. 

Many thanks to Meg and Heather for making my first visit so interesting and enjoyable.

These notes were compiled by my companion who noted down some old chums, surprises (Stornoway) and a new take on Renaissance Scotland and the Enlightenment. Lead extraction and production based on the Leadhills deposits are shown in 4 pictures.  Improvements in agriculture, manufacture and fisheries are painted and shown with the characters who initiated the 18th Century improvements. 

The view of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides (Western Isles) is the first known picture of this natural harbour.  I have often sailed in and out of Stornoway from Ullapool, also an example of a model village for fisheries.  Pitlessie Fair by Sir David Wilkie was an unexpected treasure.  Not long before I lost my sight I read an article about pictures of places from the past, juxtaposed with photographs of what they were now.  I remember driving my father to Pitlessie, having lunch in the pub in the painting and wandering around the village.  It is on a road from the M90 towards Falkland, Cupar and St Andrews (Fife)

Prof Whitestick in The Village Inn, Pitlessie with
copy of Pitlessie Fair by Sir David Wilkie
Pitlessie, Scotland
28 August 2012

View of Pitlessie Green
(location of Pitlessie Fair by Sir David Wilkie)
Pitlessie, Scotland
28 August 2012

Gallery 1 – Reformation to Revolution

Mary, Queen of Scots (The Cobham Portrait)
Pierre Oudry 1578

Sir James Balfour (1600-1657) after 1630
PG 1551

James VI
Artist unknown

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782) 1794
David Martin
PG 822

Gallery 3 – John Slezer: A Survey of Scotland

View of Stirling Castle c1670
Jan Vosterman
NGL 001.99

Seton Palace and the Firth of Forth c1639
Alexander Keirincx

The Bass Rock – The East Syde of the Bass” c1693

Rosslyn Chapel – The Chappell of Rosslin before 1693

Gallery 7 - The Age of Improvement

A View of Stornoway
James Barret

Lead Processing at Leadhills 1780s
David Allan

Four paintings:
Pounding the Ore – NG 2834
Washing the Ore – NG 2835
Smelting the Ore – NG 2836
Weighing the Lead Bars – NG 2837

Pitlessie Fair 1804
Sir David Wilkie
NG 1527

Books bought include:

The Intimate Portrait by Stephen Lloyd & Kim Sloan
Warhol – a celebration of life … and death by Keith Hartley
Gerhard Richter – Paintings from Private Collections edited by Gotz Adriani
The Discovery of Spain: Goya to Picasso

Postcards bought include:

James VI and I 1566-1625, King of Scotland 1567-1625.  King of England and Ireland 1603-1625 (as a boy) about 1574
Arnold Bronckorst (active 1565/6-1583)
Oil on panel 45.7 x 30.6 cm
Purchased 1925

James VI and I 1595
Adrian Vanson (1581-1602)
Oil on panel 72.9 x 62.3 cm
Purchased 1886

Prince Henry Benedict Stuart (1725-1807) c1746-47
Maurice-Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788)
Pastel on paper 61 x 51 cm
Purchased with aid of the Art Fund 1994

Lady Arabella Stuart (c1588-1615) c 1605
Robert Peake (c1551-1619)
Oil on panel 90.2 x 70.4 cm
Purchased 1884

Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley 1545-67
Consort of Mary, Queen of Scots
by Hans Eworth 1555
oil on canvas 70.4 x 55.2 cm
bought 1980

You can get more information about the Portrait Gallery's Access Programme for the visually impaired at http://www.nationalgalleries.org/education/access-programmes/

More general information about the gallery is available on the following links:


Saturday, 28 July 2012

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye - Tate Modern, London

19th July 2012

This exhibition is on show in Tate Modern until 14 October 2012. 

Munch ‘The Scream’ has often been in the news. Munch made several copies of this work and one came up for auction recently.  One of the Oslo paintings has been stolen more than once and this has only increased the Munch name to a much larger audience. 

Several years ago I was at a private view of a major Munch exhibition in the National Gallery.  The Scream was on show with much of Munch other works.  I still have the catalogue somewhere.  I was sighted at the time. 

I had visited Oslo in midsummer and in December when sighted and the contrast between the two seasons reminded me of the north of Scotland during the same periods.  Since I lost my sight, I had visited Oslo for a long weekend in the early summer, when the days were getting longer, though it was still rather cold on the Oslo fjord. 

Munch had a standard Scandinavian outlook if one believes in stereotypes.  Studying plays by Ibsen and Strindberg makes one dismiss some dark detective stories popular on TV just now as lightweight.  Munch had many problems over health, family and his failing eyesight.  I was particularly interested in this aspect.  Marcus Dickey Horley from Tate sent me the room guides and picture labels in advance and I could work out rooms of interest.  These centred on his reworking of paintings, self portraits, theatre work with Max Reinhardt for the Berlin Kammerspiele over Ibsen’s Ghosts and the eye drawings.

Room 1

This room had many small artworks, including self-portraits and photographs.  The photographic work is too small to make out much.  There is an old clip of a black & white film and a longer reel in a darker area.  Some works which I enjoyed and discussed were:

X42024  self-portrait
X42025  self- portrait
X41983  self-portrait

Room 2

This room is laid out with reworkings of paintings as if they were placed opposite.  Initially we zigzagged across the room to compare and contrast.  Eventually we followed the perimeter of the room. 

X41712  The Girls on a Bridge
X40573  The Girls on a Bridge

The Girls on a Bridge is a famous theme of Munch, with the colours of the dresses being almost discernable to me against the bridge and the background trees and shrubs.

X40572  The Sick Child
N05035  The Sick Child

The Sick Child is another theme of Munch, considering some of his close family died from tuberculosis.

X40571  Kiss on the Shore by Moonlight
X40566  Kiss on the Shore by Moonlight

X41982  Ashes
X41984  Ashes

X40585  Two Human Beings, the lonely ones
X41839  as above, cordoned off

Room 3

Very small pictures

Room 4

Munch had been experimenting with cameras and distortions of perspectives and as this section is called Optical Space, it was interesting to note how my peripheral vision picked up some of the lines.  One sensed the horses coming at one; the workers leaving en masse put one in the frame; and the The Yellow Log provoked a remark: “Ah, Hockney!” from both of us, much in the same manner as one would say: “Ah, Larkin!” whenever Hull University is mentioned.  (Ref. Alan Bennett and The History Boys)

X40626  Galloping Horse
X40623  Thorvald Lochen – angular
X40630  Red Virginia Creeper
X40945  Street in Asgardstrand – girl bottom centre
X40631  Murder on the Road – face at bottom
X40627  The Yellow Log
X40629  New Snow in the Avenue
X40624  Workers on Their Way Home
X40628  On the Operating Table

Room 5

This is a section on Stage.  I had been looking forward to this but found some of the background on the set design rather off putting and nothing like as pleasing as Picasso or even Hockney for that matter.  These are the paintings depicting the setting of Ibsen’s play Ghosts (which I haven’t seen performed on the stage itself). 

The rooms have odd angles making distorted cubes and a really unsettling wallpaper, which is a recurring theme showing some deterioration in Munch’s vision.  I sometimes get strange patterns when faced with old-fashioned anaglypta wall coverings, where the seams of the paper had been badly laid out producing strange lines.

X40670  Man and Woman by the Window with Potted Plants
X40583  Puberty
X40669  Man and Woman – cramped
X40672  The Artist and his Model
X40668  The Murdered
X40635  To the Sweet Young Girl
X40630  Jealousy
X42258  Death Room

Room 6

Weeping Woman -  5 of them!
X40678 is one of them
Also a sculpture

Room 10

X40705  The House is Burning
X40706  The Splitting of Faust
X40708  The Fight
X40707  The Fight
X40709  Uninvited Guests
X41966  Street Workers in the Snow – wire around
X40710  Sailors in the Snow

Room 7

Very small photos

Room 8

Starry Night is a well-known painting and I could make out the stars.  There is also a head in the lower part of the painting, though the body has a shadow projecting into the centre.  This is a very nice composition.

X40695  Man with a Sledge
X40696  The Sun
X40701  Kristian Schreiner Standing
X40699   Starry Night – head and shadow showing
X40693  Children in the Street

Room 12

X40733  Portrait in Bergen
X40734  The Night Wanderer
X40735  Self-portrait with Bottles
X40737  Self-portrait
X40738  Self-portrait between the Clock and the Bed
X40565  Self-portrait with the Spanish Flu
X42324  Man with Bronchitis

Room 11

This room has many ‘disturbing’ pictures of Munch ‘reflecting’ on his deteriorating vision after suffering a haemorrhage in his right eye in 1930.  The haemorrhage was in his good eye and thus increased the distortion, as he painted both himself and his eye in quite close detail. 

My friend found it rather disturbing watching me take a close interest in the paintings of Munch’s eyes.  This friend of mine has known me as a sighted person and probably thought my ‘seeing’ these pictures would be disturbing.   Munch has painted many extraneous lines which people with impaired vision sometimes get on good vision days and bad vision days.  These are distortions caused by the brain trying to interpret different information in good eye / worse eye conflict.

It would be interesting if Tate Modern, the RNIB and perhaps The Royal College of Ophthalmologists could organise a short workshop based on perceptions of vision.  Several ophthalmologists have voiced their own opinions on sight loss to me over the last 11 years and one sometimes gets the impression in some blind charities that they do not always appreciate the broad spectrums of sight loss and how it affects cognitive function.  Such a symposium may put art, medicine and the visually impaired on a better balance.  If you agree with this, lobby your eye clinic, art gallery and blind charity. 

X41989  Self-portrait with Wounded Eye
X40740  Disturbed Vision
X40747  Artist’s Injured Eye
X42276  Disturbed Vision
X40749  Artist’s Injured Eye
X40756  Artist’s Injured Eye
X40754  Artist’s Injured Eye


This is a very interesting, though disturbing, exhibition as it reflects many dark themes.  There is a lot to appreciate in this exhibition which has been “organised by the Centre Pompidou, Musee national d’art moderne, Paris in cooperation with the Munch Museum in Oslo and in association with Tate Modern, London.”

Postcards that I bought include:

The Girls on the Bridge 1927
Oil on canvas

New Snow in the Avenue 1906
Oil on canvas

Street in Asgardstrand 1901
Oil on canvas

The Yellow Log 1912
Oil on canvas

Starry Night 1922-4
Oil on canvas

Self-portrait 1895
Lithographic crayon, tusche and scraper

The original paintings are in the Munch-museet in Oslo.

Travel tip:
The Bank side exit from Blackfriars has lifts operating from both north and south tracks down to the ticket hall.  Though there is still construction work on the doubling of the Thameslink, access to the Embankment is straightforward and the Tate Bank side turbine hall can be reached after a short walk downstream, keeping the river on your left hand side. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Royal Academy & partners Outside In, Studio Upstairs, Pallant House Gallery

20 July 2012

I was invited to a drinks reception at the Royal Academy where the RA was hosting a show on behalf of Studio Upstairs who was holding an fundraising auction. The evening was titled “One in Four”. Studio Upstairs works with the Royal Academy of Arts and Pallant House Gallery(Chichester) raising “awareness that ONE IN FOUR adults will suffer mental health problems at some point in their life.”  The evening was also an occasion to “celebrate the work of the Royal Academy's Access Programme and Studio Upstairs who are both London partners of The Pallant House Gallery's Outside In project.”

Prof Whitestick with Kate Horbury of the Royal Academy Access and Learning Programme
20 July 2012

Kate Horbury from the RA Access Programme and a team of volunteers met us on arrival and Anne recognised me from a previous evening.  I also met Sylvia, who had taken me round the Summer Exhibition. (http://profwhitestick.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/royal-academy-summer-exhibition-2012.html)
During the evening I ran into Jennifer Gilbert from Outside In.  Jenny had helped me to load four of my paintings onto the Outside In website.  Outside In has London and National showcases for artists who have difficulty in finding a platform for their work. 

I also met several visually impaired people and I joined David under the supervision of Jenny in trying out some of the sculpture.  There was a fort (The Old Fort by Dean Stevens), a two-humped camel (Camel by Vera Friere) and another untitled work in white clay by Andrii Yefremov.  This felt like a cow with very large ears and/or horns.  Out of the corner of my eye I could detect a nightscape of Avonmouth (by Anthony Garratt).  This had a luminous quality. 

Prof Whitestick compares profiles
20 July 2012

I was later introduced to Marc Steene from Pallant House Gallery and I was telling Marc and Jenny about my own trip to the gallery in Chichester two years ago, when I was shown round the exhibition of Leonora Carrington and some of the workshops.  Marc thought he recognised who had taken me round from a rather vague description, though the kindness of the person who showed me round patiently was noted by me, with his precise directions on where to go for a meal and how to get back to the station.

Prof Whitestick with Jenny and Marc from Outside In and Pallant House Gallery
20 July 2012

The RA volunteers were on hand to escort those wishing to take in the Summer Exhibition and I made my second visit, this time around 9 pm with very different lighting conditions. 

Many thanks to the organisers for such an enjoyable evening and a chance to meet and even network with others.    

More information on the organisations mentioned can be found on the following links:

Pallant House Gallery http://www.pallant.org.uk/

Royal Academy Access and Learning Programme

Antigone - National Theatre, London

21st July 2012

I had studied Antigone by Sophocles during a course at the Open University (I covered the OU in my beginner’s blindness series.). Sophocles is one of three tragedians from 5th Century Athens, the others being Aeschylus and Euripedes.  At this point screenreaders will have noticed the mess JAWS makes of some Greek names.  Spelling variations make searches for Greek dramatists or poets as difficult as Dutch or Flemish artists. 

Antigone is reckoned to be the 2nd play of Sophocles after Ajax, but is NOT part of a trilogy with other Oedipus stories.  Sophocles invented the 3rd character speaking on stage at the same time.  His early work is a mix of speeches, dialogue and back story filling.  Greek drama regarded violence and killing as “obscene”, meaning it had to be done offstage.  At the end of a play there is a body count and Antigone is no different. 

My joining the National Theatre’s access programme allows me to have a CD sent to me with all details of performance, set, actors and descriptions.  Helpful hints on making the best of the trip are also provided. 

First stage: CD arrives

Chorus split into many voices.
I wondered how complicated this would make the play and how on earth was the describer (Bridget Crowley) to keep up with so many more speaking roles.  

Set 40 years ago. 
This could refer to many authoritarian regimes and hints are given to a possible country with no political democracy. 

Cast list and detailed set and props. 
This enables one to recognise an actor who may be well known from other work in theatre, radio and TV from the voice.   After 2 listens to the CD I had an idea of the set and props in my mind. 

Second stage: Touch Tour of set and meeting the cast

Introduced to company and cast: Creon (Christopher Eccleston), Haemon (Luke Newberry), Teiresias (Jamie Ballard) and one of the chorus (Craige Els). 

Craige’s role in the production involved acting as henchman in chief of Creon.  I was shown desks, rooms with glass walls and bunker concrete walls which had been broken.  Craige explained the use of the revolving stage and my cane managed to do a full circuit of the groove track on the Olivier stage.  Craige took me round the set while we discussed likely authoritarian regimes.  I have known a few from the 1970s onwards.  The bunker mentality did not stop with 1945.  We discussed the translation and how true the performance of Antigone really was. 

At this point it is worth noting that the Ancient Greeks thought nothing of fitting legend into modern Athenian politics.  A major unresolved issue was usually set in Thebes which can be described as an anti-Athens.  Other writers used themes from the Trojan War or Greek Theology as metaphors for some political dissent.  All the writers including the comedy writer Aristophanes served in the army.  At the time of Antigone, the Athenians were yet to set out on a prolonged war with Sparta though they had enjoyed a period of stability with Pericles.

The main characters are:

Antigone played by Jodie Whittaker
Ismene played by Annabel Scholey
Creon played by Christopher Eccleston
Haemon played by Luke Newberry
Teiresias played by Jamie Ballard
Eurydice played by Zoe Aldrich
Messenger played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

Third stage: the performance

Prof Whitestick fortifying himself before the performance
Antigone, National Theatre, London
21 July 2012

About 15 minutes before the performance a live description can be heard on the infra red headsets provided and checked at your seat.  This enables the set we have visited to be placed in context.  There is some action from the chorus and one can adjust to movement.  This is virtually a Parados. 

The play starts dramatically in the end of a bloody battle in which Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polynices have killed each other. Creon has decreed that the latter must not be buried.  At this point the ancient Greek battle of civil law and moral code breaks out.  Antigone stubbornly sticks to the rules of the gods/nature (physis) while Creon, newly crowned, rules by decree (nomos meaning man-made).  The problem cannot be resolved and leads to dramatic entries, messages and the fore-telling of the last moments of some of the characters.

Greek plays are suitable for visually impaired people as the dialogues and speeches are fairly easy to follow.  In keeping true to the text but complicating the chorus role, the NT handed Bridget a tough job in keeping up with the entries and stage movements.  Bridget had warned in the CD that shorthand names would be used for the characters in the production formed as a chorus.  

The play has some in-built tension at the beginning with some of the music beating out dactyl (dah diddy) rhythms.  Most of English prose and poetry is based on iambic pentameter whereas much classical Greek poetry and Latin uses dactylic hexameter.  Stage English sounds uncomfortable in this meter and this added in my mind to the tension about to explode in scenes with Antigone and her sister and later with Creon. 

The music and sound effects were overwhelming at points and having been told at Detroit that my headset was a bit loud (by a friend) I was careful to turn down the description when I felt I did not need it.  In this production the audio description is important in understanding how Polly Findlay (the director) brought Sophocles’ version of Antigone up to date.  Not long after I lost my sight I went to the National Theatre production of Iphigenia in Aulos.  Knowing the story helps in many of these 5th Century Athenian plays.  In a small studio one can get away without the audio description, but one misses part of the story. 

The unsung heroine of the productions was of course Bridget who gave another live performance.

Finally, if Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, then Antigone launched millions of 6th form and undergraduate essays, which this post is gradually morphing into …