Lunchtime Lecture: Exhibiting Blindness, Portraits of Blind People in the 19th Century
Past event archive
12 December 2013, 13:15-14:00
Ondaatje Wing Theatre
by Maxim Gauci, printed by Graf & Soret,
published by Andrews & Co lithograph,
early 19th century
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Art historian Heather Tilley explores blindness in the 19th century through portraits of prominent blind and visually-impaired people.
The condition of blindness underwent significant change in the Nineteenth Century, affected by a series of social, technological and medical innovations. The development of raised type and finger reading practices contributed to improvements in blind people’s education, whereas advancements in ophthalmology meant that fewer people experienced visual impairment by the century’s end. The 1885 Royal Commission on blindness – called for by blind and partially-sighted people themselves – began the process of formalising state support for education and welfare in the Twentieth Century.
Taking inspiration from the current display Facing Blindness: Visual Impairment in the Nineteenth Century which she curated, Heather Tilley traces the changing experience of blindness in the period through a range of portraits of prominent blind and visually-impaired people including James Holman, Laura Bridgman, Thomas Armitage, Henry Fawcett and Robert Lowe. She explores the complex and varying effects that sight loss had on these sitters, as well as the way in which they participated in and shaped debates around the treatment and representation of blindness. However, the lives of more ordinary blind people will also be considered, frequently difficult to reconstruct from all-too often partial and fragmentary archives, questioning what we might learn from portraits of unknown blind sitters.
This talk also addresses the way in which depictions of blind people may have been shaped by mythic and spiritual stereotypes, often as a prompt to reflect on the limits of sight and the artist’s craft. However, Heather Tilley also considers a rich vein of portraiture – such as the portraits of James Holman that adorned his travel memoirs – in which artist and sitter collaborated to present positive, frequently multisensory, depictions of blindness.
Heather Tilley is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Birkbeck College, specialising the relationship between literature, art, the body and the senses in the Victorian period. She recently completed a manuscript titled Blindness and Writing: Wordsworth to Gissing. As part of this project on the history of visual disability, she curated an exhibition at Birkbeck, Touching the Book: Embossed Literature for Blind People in the Nineteenth Century, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the display here at the National Portrait Gallery, Facing Blindness: Visual Impairment in the Nineteenth Century. Her new research project explores the relationship between touch and gender in the Victorian period through medical and scientific texts, literature and art and is titled Victorian Touch, Tactile Media and the Gendered Body, 1830-92.