Sunday, 24 July 2016

Pity the Blind...

So, here we are at my 600th post which is a strange milestone.  I've been at this blog-business five years now and I still really love chatting with you and have heard from so many wonderful people. I wanted to do something meaningful for post 600, and was recently looking at this picture...

The Blind Girl (1856) John Everett Millais
It's an image you are probably all aware of because it is one of Millais' most famous images (after the all-conquering Ophelia obviously). I've always loved it and will at some point get round to doing a post all about it and the two lasses in it, but just for now I want to concentrate on the subject.  The scene is of two girls, one of whom is blind. She has paused with (presumably) her sister to shelter from the rain under her shawl.  Whilst her sister peaks at the spectacular double rainbow, the wonder of nature is made even more pathos-drenched by the elder girl's gentle touch of a blade of grass.  That seems to be the extent of her awareness of the splendour of the natural world.  All around are beautiful sights but she can't see any of it, from the tiny, perfect butterfly to the broad arc of colour in the sky. Around her neck is a sign that says 'Pity the Blind', but is that what we are being asked to do?

The Blind Beggar Ralph Hedley
If we go by the art of the period, the blind were indeed to be pitied.  Repeatedly they are shown begging, destitute and dirty.  Criticism for The Blind Girl included one viewer bemoaning how dirty the girls were and there was an agreement that the girls, undoubtedly beggars were to be regarded with sorrow.  In fact, the number of images of the blind as beggars is overwhelming.  Lack of sight equated to lack of life chances, reliance on others and the assumed pose of hat outstretched awaiting the drop of a coin from an unseen benefactor.

The Blind Beggar James Burras the Elder
If such a thing existed in Victorian times, you could argue that the snowy, wild-haired old blind man with cane and hat presented was a bit of a trope.  Unkempt yet with an attempt at a dignified appearance, this is a man who has fallen on hard times and lost his sight.  How has he lost his sight?  By the reliance on charity, it may be offered that his lose of eyesight is linked to his age as it is hard to imagine a blind beggar would last long without family, friends or the welfare state to assist.

Blind Grannie James Elder Christie
There does seem to be a bevy of elderly visually-impaired subjects, left utterly vulnerable not only because of their age but also their disability.  Blind Grannie is a knuckle-biting image of a grandmother 'seeing' the face of her granddaughter through the tracing of her face.  Let's hope the young 'un's not a biter...

The Blind Beggar Walter William Ouless
The majority of the blind subjects I came across, especially the elderly, were men.  Maybe this was because women were already seen as vulnerable and helpless whereas the image of a man having brought low by age and infirmity had added impact.  Coupled with this is that an awful lot of the images include a companion for the beggar, a human version of a guide-dog, presumably a family member.  This is very often a girl who is now responsible for the well-being of the former patriarch of the clan. In Ouless' work, an impressively-bearded old beggar is led by a rather attractive young lady.  He is large, imposing yet has his head bowed meekly.  She is small, slight but looks at us in challenge.

The Blind Beggar James Flewitt Mullock
In many of the images, the seeing companion of the blind beggar is a child and it leads me to wonder if a Saint Christopher metaphor is being offered.  These children are responsible for keeping people on the safe path, they will not lead you astray (unlike that dog who looks easily distracted).  There is something about the child companions of the blind beggars that makes me suspect a Jesus-in-Disguise thing is going on here...

The Blind Beggar Josephus Dyckmans
I wonder if the fact that Dyckmans' child companion is a little girl adds to the fact that they are a very fragile pair.  He can't see and she is in danger of being kidnapped into some sort of chimney-sweeping/child prostitution ring at any moment.  The pair in Dyckmans' work have a dignity beyond their pitiable condition but they are doomed.  The woman behind them knows it, they know it, we all know it.  They are one cold night away from being found frozen to death on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral.

The Blind Girl Beatrice Offor
Images of blind women tend to be a slightly different deal.  There are a number of women on their own, like the lady above, who seem to be more self-sufficient than their male counterparts, not to mention younger.  Beatrice Offor's young woman is having a bit of a read in the street - is she reading the Bible aloud?  That is a massive book for a young woman to be heaving through the streets and as it seems to be in braille I can't imagine it is something that she has just come across. Developed from a failed military code system in the early part of the 19th century, Braille was expanded in English in 1905, possibly around the time this painting was created. What on earth is she doing?  More to the point, is she getting paid for it?

Blind Mary (1881) James Clark
Again, reading plays a big part in this image of a blind lady, who despite her age and infirmity sits upright in her seat, her eyes closed but her expression alert.  Her daughter (I presume) has paused in her reading and in between them is a child, presumably the grandchild of Blind Mary.  The inference might be that young or old, sighted or otherwise, everyone enjoys being read to.  The clock behind them indicates that they are joined by the passing of time, but basically there is no difference in them.  The old person is just the young person after time has passed.  The woman on the left looks across at her past and her future.

The Blind Fiddler John Robertson Reid
The Blind Girl above also highlights another aspect of portrayals of the blind in Victorian art.  On the blind girl's lap is a concertina, indicating that she earns a living through her talents rather than depending on the pity of others.  Likewise The Blind Fiddler shows an elderly man being led by his granddaughter to a suitable place to busk.  Is it compulsory to have a small dog with you?  It's not like the dog is any great use in terms of leading the blind chap.  Maybe he dances while the man plays his violin?

The Blind Singer (1900) Felice Castegnaro 
I used this picture recently in my post about singing.  A blind child stands behind a friend or sibling and literally sings for their supper.  I suppose the profusion of blind musicians is to show how the lose of one sense does not affect the chances of excelling in a sublime art, and in fact might make the performance of music more meaningful.  After all, music cannot be seen, it can be just as well appreciated (if not more so) with eyes closed as with eyes open.

The Blind Girl (1901) Robert Brough
So, why my personal interest?  Well, for those who follow this blog regular it will come as no surprise.  My daughter is registered partially sighted due to her oculocutaneous albinism.  She has very bad eyesight and for the first part of her life couldn't see anything at all.  We were told she was blind. I found this to be devastating as I take vision for granted and have a love for certain things that are purely visual.  My heart was broken imagining how terrible it was that my daughter would never see all the paintings I loved, she'd never see flowers, clouds, my face.  I think that was the thing that utterly killed me - my daughter would never see me smiling at her.  Until she was about two years old she didn't see, yet her enjoyment of the world was experienced through touch, smell, sound and shoving things in her mouth.  She would smile when she felt her cuddly knitted cow, Mona Moo.  She would laugh when we blew raspberries on her stomach.  She would go into ecstasies when she ate chocolate.  She finally got glasses that were strong enough so that she could just about see things but her eyesight will never be particularly good but that is just one sense.  There is no reason to pity her, she has the other four senses sussed in ways I don't.  Like the girl in Brough's painting above, my daughter Lily-Rose is a person of wonder and magnificence.  I love how the detail of room is in shadow as we see the girl's face and the flowers she is smelling.  They are luminous in the darkness but the scene is no less beautiful.

We pity the blind because we fear how we would manage if we were robbed of our most immediate sense.  We pity the blind as we would pity anyone who was unprotected in a cruel world.  The blind girl in Millais' picture is literally more in touch with her surroundings than her sighted companion. Maybe we should also pity ourselves if we cannot appreciate the beauty on offer through the four other senses...


  1. What a beautiful post Kirsty - and a tribute to Lily-Rose. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hooray! 600 posts! Congratulations!

  3. A beautiful and touching post. It brought a manly tear to my eye.

  4. Love, for more reasons than you can know. Great post and congrats on 600 posts!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx