Another Visit to the Barber

John Hanning Speke

John Hanning Speke (1827 – 1864) By the Southwell Brothers, 1863

Early Photographic Studio Photography and the Influence of Photography on Impressionist Painting

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, the University of Birmingham July 2017, Insight Programme

More than three years ago I wrote about the Insight programme run by the staff and volunteers at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. The programme runs on a quarterly basis and has gathered a steady group of visually impaired followers. For various reasons I have been a rather sporadic attendee but last week I was lucky enough to be included in the group.

The volunteer guides are all enthusiastic, erudite and very knowledgeable art lovers. Sometimes the demands of the gallery and the VI group call for levels of imagination and ingenuity above and beyond their remit. I suspect and hope they like a challenge and this time they met it with great success by linking the unlikely subject of 19th century cartes de visite exhibition with the influence of photography on the French Impressionists.

For readers who, like me, had never heard of cartes de visite, these were small visiting cards bearing a photograph of the visitor and were patented by Disdéri in Paris in 1854. Initially they were straightforward studio based photographs but later became more widely interesting and collectible. For more information on cartes de visite go to For those of us living in this digital age it is easy to understand the appeal of the accessibility of photography in the 19th century and its appeal to painters looking for fresh ideas.

On this occasion four of the volunteer guides at the Institute gave us a detailed and interesting account of the connection between photography and the innovative approach of the Impressionists to their subjects, both portraits and landscape. I was particularly interested in the ideas of using paint to capture the effects of how we see things with our peripheral vision. For those of us who have macular degeneration and are only left with peripheral vision it seems particularly ironic that we are unable to focus on the technique. Thank goodness for the imagination and sensitivity of the guides in describing what we cannot see. The provision of excellent reproductions of some of the work under discussion is a great help. We can then examine them closely before seeing the real thing.

Water Lily Pond - Monet

Claude Monet, Water Lily Pond 1900

After looking at the reproduction images we were taken to the main gallery where the guides talked about the Monet Water Lily Pond 1900, the Degas Jockeys Before the Race 1879 and the Manet portrait of his friend Carolus Duran 1876.

We then visited the small exhibition of cartes de visite. Unfortunately, for my particular vision, the lighting was too dim and the photographs too small for me to see them.

Following the visit to the gallery, we returned to the seminar room to discuss what we had seen. The consensus was that the morning had been an introduction to some new ideas and was very accessible at different levels to all of us. Great success!

This blog is intended to be about technology and accessibility for people with VI and so I have not gone into detail about the exhibition but I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. It has something for everyone!

Carolus Duran - Manet

Manet – Carolus Duran 1876

PS thank you Daisy for editing and posting this.


The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

A Visit to the Barber blog

Carte de Visite – wiki entry

This entry was posted in Art, Birmingham, Communication, Education, low vision. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Another Visit to the Barber

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    Another fascinating visit. I’m glad they are so good at doing this and careful with the range of issues their visitors have.

  2. Thanks, Liz It’s a wonderful initiative and always interesting.

  3. mareflynn says:

    Thank you for your fascinating description of this programme at The Barber. As a teacher of VI, I am interested in how to make all the arts accessible to the children I teach. In particular, what I took from your blog is the mention of a sensitive guide to point out details to notice that even fully sighted people may not notice.

  4. Thank you for your kind comment. Teaching VI children must be fascinating because of individual needs. Sensitivity is essential but it can be a misleading word in this context. In my view the most important thing is to create an environment in which the children feel confident to ask for what they want. it won’t always be appropriate to use description, for instance.I could go on! However, if you would like to email me I can give you more specific examples. Liz has my email address. You may have already read it but I think Professor John Hull’s account of losing his sight, Touching the Roark, is a really frank account of the practicalities. There is also a documentary on film but I’m not sure what it is called. Good luck with the children.

I love hearing from my readers - do please leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s