The ‘celebrated blind traveller’ James Holman is one of the sitters featured in the display Facing Blindness: Visual Impairment in the Nineteenth Century. Both Holman’s biography and his portraiture helped to counter the more negative associations between blindness and poverty that existed in the nineteenth century. Holman’s portrait – which depicts him as a professional, smartly-attired individual surrounded by symbols of his learning and adventures – including his hand resting on a globe and his writing frame – very much refute other stereotypical associations of blindness and poverty. This association is illustrated in this etching of two blind beggars by the antiquary John Thomas Smith, who portrayed several other blind and visually-disabled poor people in his 1817 book Vagabondia or, anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London.

It might seem strange to have your portrait taken if you cannot see the image. Yet the nineteenth-century portraits on display in Facing Blindness, as well as other examples I have found, suggest that blind sitters had a range of reasons for wanting their likenesses made. For more famous individuals such as Holman and the Liberal politician Henry Fawcett, the circulation of their image was clearly linked to promotion of their public persona. As a point of contrast, I’d like to reflect briefly on this ambrotype portrait of a woman, possibly called Ann Whiting, dating from around the mid-nineteenth century when ambrotypes were a popular and cheap photographic form. Modestly attired in a dark dress and white bonnet, the sitter faces forward. Her closed eyes suggest she has a visual impairment, which is confirmed by the action of her hands laid upon an open book volume that contains both raised and ink print text. The choice to portray this sitter engaged in the relatively new act of finger reading (embossed books had only been introduced to Britain in the late 1820s) challenges again the stereotype of blind people as helpless and dependent. Although produced within a private, personal context, this photograph resembles the portrait of Holman by celebrating touch as a route to education and knowledge.

James Holman by Maxim Gauci, printed by Graf & Soret, published by Andrews & Co, lithograph, early 19th century. © National Portrait Gallery, London

James Holman by Maxim Gauci, printed by Graf & Soret, published by Andrews & Co, lithograph, early 19th century. © National Portrait Gallery, London

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John Thomas Smith, etching (1816). Wellcome Library, London. ICV no 16451i. This image is licensed under CC BY 4.0

John Thomas Smith, Two blind beggars, one stands with a placard around his neck and hat, the other kneels with a dog on his lap, etching (1816). Full Bibliographic Record.

Wellcome Library, London. ICV no 16451i. This image is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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Ann Whiting by an unknown photographer, ambrotype photograph (c. 1850s-60s). Private collection. © Private Collection. All rights reserved.

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