It’s a fascinating painting, so complex and ornate,” says Shelagh Edge, describing The Demidoff Altarpiece, a 1476 painting by Carlo Crivelli.
Art lover Edge loves to visit the National Gallery in London to enjoy her favourite paintings, despite being visually impaired. She has no intention of letting a disability spoil her appreciation of art.
She is one of 10 visually impaired people who have gathered in a conference room at the National Gallery for an Art Through Words workshop. The mood is friendly. Most of the group have been before and some know each other. Most are older people, mainly from London and the home counties. Their level of sight varies, from partial to none.
Each has a large colour reproduction of the painting under discussion in front of them. Lecturer Viyki Turnbull begins to describe the painting in detail and invites questions. People listen and move their hands around the reproductions of the religious painting, as we hear descriptions of Mary and Jesus surrounded by saints.
Some use magnifying glasses to focus on details but most prefer to simply listen. The group consists of art enthusiasts who enjoy themselves from the off. After an hour or so the party moves into the gallery to stand in front of The Demidoff Altarpiece itself.
Art Through Words
The session is part of the National Gallery’s free monthly Art Through Words programme, which apparently has the largest audience of visitors with a visual impairment of any UK gallery.
Mary Connelly admits she was initially sceptical about the idea of art classes for visually impaired people but is now a huge fan. She describes the National Gallery sessions as self-affirming.
She says: “I can’t see paintings clearly so I couldn’t imagine the point of coming here. I didn’t think I would get anything out of it. But I was bowled over. Oh, but the joy! The descriptions we get are marvellous. I may only be able to see splodges of colour but now I know all about today’s painting.
“My friends will describe paintings to me but I know I’m spoiling their enjoyment. This is better.”
For her, descriptions of art work much better than touching exhibits which is what visually impaired people are often encouraged to do. “I am wary of activities for blind people always being about touching,” Connelly says. “The assumption is if you are blind you must want to touch. Today’s experience is more subtle.”
Although Edge can see large objects, she can’t see any detail and argues that visually impaired people need their own workshops.
She says: “There would be no point me going to a regular lecture. I can’t see the paintings, and find it hard to understand what is going on.”
Many museums and galleries don’t run separate events for disabled people but prefer events to be open to all. A pilot initiative this spring, Explore, is aiming to make galleries more welcoming to disabled people. It could be argued that this is overdue. Disabled people are less likely to attend cultural venues and only 50% go to galleries at least once a month compared with 74% of the population, according to the Mayor of London’s cultural strategy.
“Wherever possible we have integrated activities for disabled visitors in our mainstream programmes,” says National Gallery access officer Caroline Marcus. But separate specialist provision is laid on when requested by particular groups, such as people with visual and sensory impairments.
The National Gallery also runs art projects for specific groups including young offenders and homeless people and is developing programmes for people with learning disabilities and mental illness.
What’s on where
Of all disabilities, people with visual and sensory impairments are generally best catered for by museums and galleries.
For information on events accessible to visually impaired people, including activities at galleries in Lincoln, Manchester, Swansea, Liverpool, Wolverhampton, Edinburgh and London, visit www.rnib.org.uk/audiodescription and click on the museums and galleries link.
This spring and summer a pilot programme, Explore, aims to make galleries more welcoming to disabled people. Explore is run by disability arts organisation Shape and gallery education association Engage
Shape chief executive Steve Mannix says: “Disabled and deaf people still face barriers when visiting a gallery, whether it’s physical access, thinking ‘it’s not for me’ or the inexperience of staff with disabled and deaf people.” Galleries taking part are in the West Midlands, Wales and London.
For events go to www.nationalgallery.org.uk/what/events/bsl.htm
For workshop details go to www.nationalgallery.org.uk/what/events/words.htm
This article appeared in the 3 April issue under the headline “Masters of art”