The writers and their chosen artworks

Brian Lewis, Eleanor Snare, Emma Bolland (2018), Matthew Bellwood, Peadar O’Dea and Terry Simpson were the writers who rose to the challenge of creating and reading a description for my event on 19 July. Their varied styles and approaches to the task resulted in a wonderful selection of descriptions. They engaged the audience’s emotions and intellect with witty, clever and moving readings, which included stories, a letter and a poem. Writers not only described the artworks, but included political and historical context, information about the artist’s life and work, and their own interpretations.

The artworks that the writers chose to describe were:

  • Maples Demolition, Euston Road (1960) by Frank Auerbach – Brian Lewis
  • The Remains (2007) by Roger Palmer – Matthew Bellwood
  • Movie (2015) by Hilary Lloyd – Emma Bolland
  • The Convent Garden (1878) by Francis S. Walker – Peadar O’Dea
  • The Bridesmaid (1883-85) by James Tissot – Eleanor Snare
  • Retribution (1858) by Edward Armitage – Terry Simpson.

IMG_7227Brian Lewis’s detailed examination of an abstract work showed how much was represented in this painting of the pulling down a furniture store in London: Maples Demolition, Euston Road. Through the context of the artist’s body of work and the post-war period, we discovered how the layering of thickly applied oil paint reflected the subject matter and the period. Brian’s use of directional navigation to guide us round the picture was appropriate and effective. The tactile qualities of this work were not lost on us, even though we were unable to touch.

DSC00595Meanwhile, Matthew Bellwood told a fascinating tale of Botany Bay and its links to Leeds. A contemporary work in neon, quite minimal and stark, the layers of The Remains were revealed through research – into the artist’s other work and previous exhibitions, the woollen trade and industry of Leeds, the meaning of words and names, Captain Cook’s voyages, and the erasing of Aboriginal culture in Australia. A complex description arose from a deceptively simple installation. We made discoveries of our own, centuries after Discovery sailed.

EmmaIn the same gallery, showing contemporary works in the collection, Emma Bolland found her route in to her description of Movie through the letter form. This set up a conceptual dialogue with the visitor. Her description was an interrogation of what it means to see or to look at things differently, for gallery visitors to have different perceptions of artworks – from the artist, from other visitors and from curators. In addition, the bright daylight in the gallery all but obscured the moving image element of this installation, a fact that Emma wove in to her description, musing on what is and isn’t visible.

PHOTO-2018-07-19-17-43-38Peadar O’Dea, with his story of an agnostic Mother Superior, challenged by a novice in The Convent Garden, had introduced disabled characters, “… because I just like to write about disabled characters. I thought: Why not?” And why not introduce a fleeting bluebird, if it improves the plot? Playing around with timelines and describing the poses of the characters “as if caught in a painting” was inventive, introducing humour and playfulness. The painting was originally created to prompt viewers to make up stories. The stories we tell today may be very different from those imagined by the artist.

An art gallery with Victorian pictures on dark red walls. Several people stand around

One of the research participants had suggested that poetry is a good way to bring paintings to life. That was certainly the case with Eleanor Snare’s poem which accompanied The Bridesmaid. She wrote from the point of view of a messenger boy who appears in the foreground of the painting, chosen because he is the nearest person to the audience. Her beautiful poem described the scene with longing and wonder. This proved that a good description need not include every last detail in a picture – that would be boring and difficult to follow. Instead, Eleanor cleverly revealed key details through the observations of the boy.

Terry Simpson chose the mammoth Victorian painting Retribution. Such a significant and well-known (loved?) presence in the gallery seemed an appropriate ending to the event. It’s certainly a controversial picture, painted at the height of the British Empire.
Heroic Britannia is PHOTO-2018-07-19-17-43-46

shown exacting revenge on the Indian tiger. The painting in fact represents a shameful series of events provoked by Britain’s savage treatment of the people of India. Terry was able to put this into context and give a contemporary interpretation. Conflicting feelings arose from this work: condemning the injustice of empire while admiring the representation of a strong woman, “A Victorian super-heroine”.

In the discussions that followed the readings, participants were enthusiastic about the descriptions, which they felt had been effective in bringing the artworks to life and awakening the imagination. People picked out phrases or sentences that they particularly liked, or styles that they felt were evocative of a mood, scenario or historic period. Reading the drafts of the descriptions before the event, I had been impressed with the high quality of the descriptions, as well as the varied styles.



Armitage, E. (1858) Retribution [Oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Auerbach, F. (1960) Maples Demolition, Euston Road [Oil on board]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Bolland, E. (2018) ‘Silvery, Silvery’ Emma Bolland – Artist, writer, 3 August.Available at: (Accessed: 3 August 2018).

Lloyd, H. (2015) Movie [Digital film with sound, fan and fabric]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Palmer, R. (2007) The Remains [Neon]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Tissot, J.J. (1883 – 85) The Bridesmaid [Oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Walker, F.S. (1878) The Convent Garden [oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Slow looking

How interesting that Tate Modern is encouraging ‘slow looking’ at the current Bonnard exhibition (Brown, 2018). The show’s curator is quoted as saying that the paintings “reward very close and extended scrutiny”.

This is consistent with the findings of my research, that what suits blind and partially sighted people is good for everyone. The Tate is showing that close examination of works is a rewarding experience that reveals details of artworks gradually.

At the audio description event at Leeds Art Gallery last week, there were several comments by sighted people who realised that you didn’t need to take in a whole picture at once. In fact, if you did you were likely to miss many of the details and features. The descriptions that were read out pointed out some of the details that people might have missed and supported a longer, closer look at the artworks.

In an art gallery a man is moving one of the stands of a low flexible barrier in front of a large painting
Terry Simpson moves a barrier, ahead of describing Edward Armitage’s Retribution

Leeds Art Gallery had given me permission to move the barriers in front of the particular works we were viewing, so that partially sighted people could get closer to the art to better appreciate the detail. This is something that other participants took advantage of as well.

The Tate is also making their labels larger, so that people don’t have to break off their viewing to peer at them. Again, this is something that will benefit visually impaired people.


Brown, M. (2018) ‘Tate recommends ‘slow looking’ at major Pierre Bonnard exhibition’, The Guardian 23 July.  Available at: (Accessed: 25 July 2018).

An adventure in audio description

I’ve been writing a couple of reports about last week’s audio description event – one as a reflection and record, to be shared with interested people as well as being an appendix to my dissertation: An adventure in audio description report (pdf 1.22MB). Another for the university website (see Below is an article before severe editing – and a few more photos.

Twenty five people, a mix of visually impaired and sighted people, met at Leeds Art Gallery last week to explore the possibilities of audio description in the gallery. I invited them as part of my final MA project. I have been researching the experiences of blind and partially sighted gallery visitors, talking to visually impaired people about their connections to and appreciation of artworks in the gallery. This research informed the curatorial event: an experiment with live audio description.

The research participants had shared their experiences – positive and negative – of previous gallery visits and suggested ways that their enjoyment of art could be enhanced. Engaging all the senses, particularly hearing and touch, was important.

What was valued highly, and made gallery visits memorable for all participants, was having staff available to talk to, who could explain and answer questions, and who could guide them to artworks of interest. Pre-recorded audio guides can be useful, but they don’t match the responsiveness and enthusiasm that a worker or volunteer in the gallery can provide.

Blind and partially sighted people would not be the only people to benefit from being able to hear explanations or descriptions of artworks, or being able to touch objects. Participants agreed that these should be available to all gallery visitors and would improve everyone’s experience.

While participants were familiar with audio description in the theatre or on television, nobody had come across it in an art gallery. Audio description relates key visual elements of a scene. In film, theatre or TV it aims to be as objective as possible. Describing art, on the other hand, offers opportunities for innovation and creativity. With this in mind, I invited six writers, including artists, poets and storytellers, to produce a description of an artwork in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection, and to read it out at the event, to an audience comprising visually impaired and sighted people.

Brian Lewis, Eleanor Snare, Emma Bolland, Matthew Bellwood (pictured above describing Roger Palmer’s The Remains), Peadar O’Dea and Terry Simpson were the writers who rose to the occasion. Their varied styles and approaches to the task resulted in a wonderful selection of descriptions. They engaged the audience’s emotions and intellect with witty, clever and moving readings, which included stories, a letter and a poem. Writers not only described the artworks, but included political and historical context, information about the artist’s life and work, and their own interpretations.

In the discussions that followed, participants were enthusiastic about the descriptions, which they felt had been effective in bringing the artworks to life and awakening the imagination.  The event showed that improving accessibility can be creative and can benefit everyone.  But, more than anything, it had encouraged everyone to look more closely, to notice more detail and to make deeper connections with art.

Many thanks to Leeds Art Gallery for supporting this event.

My report of the event: An adventure in audio description report (pdf 1.22MB).

An art gallery with Victorian pictures on dark red walls. Several people stand around
Elly Snare reads her poem on Tissot’s The Bridesmaid

Looking closely: audio description event, Leeds Art Gallery 19.7.18

The story tellers made the paintings come alive and was a great way to describe the art to the visually impaired (participant at event).

This was the “instance of curatorial practice” I organised as part of the MA Curation practices. An experiment with audio description: I invited six writers to create an audio description of an artwork in Leeds Art Gallery and to read it out to an invited audience made up of blind and partially sighted, and sighted, people.

Four people stand in front of a large abstract painting
Discussing Frank Auerbach’s painting with Brian Lewis

The planning paid off, it was a good event, largely thanks to the wonderful descriptions that the writers had produced. The works they covered:

  • Brian Lewis – Maples Demolition, Euston Road (1960) by Frank Auerbach
  • Matthew Bellwood – The Remains (2007) by Roger Palmer
  • Emma Bolland – Movie (2015) by Hilary Lloyd
  • Peadar O’Dea – The Convent Garden (1878) by Francis S. Walker
  • Elly Snare – The Bridesmaid (1883-85) by James Tissot
  • Terry Simpson – Retribution (1858) by Edward Armitage.
Terry Simpson prepares to describe Edward Armitage’s Retribution
Poet Elly Snare mid flow, bringing Tissot’s The Bridesmaid to life

I’d made a few last minute changes to my plans, because I got wind that a few extra people, as well as those invited, were going to turn up. While it was exciting that a lot of people were interested in the event, extra bodies posed some logistical issues. I decided to split the group into two. Each group would hear three descriptions each rather than all six. This worked OK with careful timetabling and by drafting in a friend to help out. The added bonus of this approach meant there was more time for questions, discussion and taking a close look at the artwork.

Five people stand round in a bright art gallery, listening to a woman reading
Emma Bolland reads her text about Movie by Hilary Lloyd

The descriptions, which included a poem, stories, a letter to the viewer, historical contexts and personal viewpoints, were all brilliant, from their different approaches. There were appreciative comments from participants and writers and everyone seemed to enjoy the event. The descriptions were effective in bringing artworks in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection to life, and in getting everyone there to look more closely at the art.


I’m gathering more feedback and will do a proper evaluation of the event. For now, here are some photos.


Huge thanks to all the writers and to Leeds Art Gallery for letting me hold the event there, and to education officer Amanda Phillips for her support.

Links to audio recordings

Emma Bolland:

Peadar O’Dea:

Eleanor Snare:

Terry Simpson:




The joy of risk assessments

A necessary part of any event. I am using a form provided by Leeds Art Gallery which helpfully includes information from previous assessments so I can adapt it. Some risks e.g. causing offence, unruly behaviour, may be minimal! It’s designed for many eventualities.

But need to factor in any additional risks in the gallery for blind and partially sighted people. All the participants hate freestanding barriers!

Things to consider / include:

  • Welcome and introduction – include practical information
  • Moving around the gallery
  • Furniture – use of folding stools, need to make sure they aren’t obstructions
  • Keep the numbers fairly small so we can hear
  • Avoid noisy areas for descriptions e.g. top of stairs
  • Don’t use electrical equipment
  • Some people might not want to be photographed
  • Ask a friend to be a guide and look out
  • Ask people to arrive in good time
  • Check the descriptions for any potentially offensive material!

Guidelines for creative audio description

I drafted some pointers to aid the describers who I’m recruiting for my curated event: creative audio descriptions of items in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection. Influenced by a few particular writers / artists.

Some suggestions to help you write an audio description

‘Abandon the pretext of objectivity. It is impossible and besides the point’ (Kleege, 2018).

‘I wouldn’t worry about trying to get things right straight away, what is more important is to have a go’ (Partington, 2017).

‘We were drawn into it, they explained it, the way it was lit, the brightness, the colours, it came to life!’ (research participant, 2018).

Be creative

  • Don’t worry about objectivity – an interesting, enthusiastic description is much better.
  • Feel free to use poetry, sound, story-telling. Tell us why you’ve chosen this piece. Evoke the senses and engage the audience.
  • So long as you cover the basics, have a bit of fun!

Choose an artwork

  • From the Art Gallery’s collection, not from a temporary exhibition. If in doubt, ask a member of staff.
  • It might be easier to choose something you have strong feelings about, positive or negative. Something you are drawn to for whatever reason.
  • A very dark paintings, where there is little difference between colours. Partially sighted people find these more difficult to interpret.
  • Don’t choose works that are mounted high up on the wall. Eye level is good.
  • Abstract and contemporary works are fine.
  • Research the work a little so you can answer basic questions – but you don’t have be an expert.

Get the basics in early: state the obvious

  • What is it? Painting, film, sculpture, installation etc.
  • Artist, title of artwork, year it was created, when the artist was born and died.
  • Size, either as a measurement or in comparison to a common object.
  • How it is displayed: on the wall, a plinth, in a case etc.
  • Describe what you see, state the obvious!

What’s the impact? What’s striking about it? Then some detail

  • Describe the overall impression, the composition and the things that the eye is drawn to.
  • Try to convey the impact of the work, its wow factor.
  • If it’s significant, describe the media / materials, or particular techniques that the artist has used – and why.
  • Describe colours, tones and light / shade.
  • Does it have any tactile qualities you could describe?
  • Does it evoke any other senses or particular emotions?
  • Once you have set the scene, move onto the details.
  • But you don’t need to describe every single thing, just the things you think are significant.
  • Give some context, whatever you feel is important: historical period, artistic movement, political events, influences, period of artist’s life, relationships etc.
  • Why is this in the gallery? What’s important about it?

General tips

  • Move in a logical, sequential order around the artwork, don’t jump around it.
  • Don’t describe something as “over there” or “as you can see here”. Say “in the top right hand corner” etc.
  • But you don’t need to completely avoid words like “see” and other words rooted in vision. They are part of everyday language, used by everyone.
  • Be open to questions. Or you might want to ask your own questions.


Kleege, Georgina (2018) More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Partington, Z. (2017) [Panel discussion] at Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Sensing Culture (2018) Audio Description. Available at: (Accessed: 30 June 2018).


Curated project proposal: creative audio description

I am planning to hold an audio described event in Leeds Art Gallery in July.

I will be inviting about six writers and poets to write an audio description of one of the works in the Gallery’s permanent collection, then read it to an audience made up of of visually impaired and sighted people.



  • visually impaired people I’ve spoken to so far use audio description regularly – for TV and theatre, but little experience in gallery. One person who had experienced it thought it was marvellous
  • some recent advice about audio description, including advice from visually impaired people themselves (Cox, 2017, Partington, 2017), urges galleries to have a go at audio description, have fun and be creative, rather than worrying about getting everything perfect straight away. Kleege (2018, p. 121) goes further and urges describers to ‘abandon the pretext of objectivity’.
  • not too onerous a task for writers to create one description – I’ll draw up guidelines, and ask them to cover the basics while encouraging creativity.


  • To experiment with audio description
  • To be creative and have fun
  • To improve access to works in the gallery
  • To bring visually impaired and sighted people together
  • To show that creative audio description is of interest and engages a broad audience, not just blind and partially sighted people
  • To get people talking about art and about accessibility
  • To produce guidelines for audio describing artworks
  • To pilot a low-cost approach that could be easily replicated e.g. working in partnership with writers’ groups.

(The picture shows an audio described event at the Royal Academy).



Cox, L. (2017) ‘Creative Audio Description’ in Shape Arts Ways of Seeing Art. London: Shape Arts pp. 14-18.

Kleege, G. (2018) More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Partington, Z. (2017) ‘Panel discussion’ at Bridging the Gaps: Exploring the link Between Art and Audio Description, 24 February. London: Tate Modern. Available at:
 (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Leeds sculpture collections

The latest major exhibition in Leeds opened last week. The Sculpture Collections (2018) showcases the best of Leeds’ significant collections, exhibited in both Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute.

Ahead of the opening was a talk and tour in the Henry Moore Institute. I particularly enjoyed the work in Galleries 1 and 2, which provided a survey of British sculpture in the period 1945 – 1965. I find this an interesting period for art in Britain, the tension between the post-war optimism and hope for the future, contrasted with the horror and the aftermath of what had gone before, is evident in much of the art. Featureless or blank-looking faces nonetheless can suggest a range of emotions. In their simple forms they represent humanity.

In this period of political upheaval many artists from across Europe came to Britain, and the collection has many works from Eastern European artists whose style influenced British sculpture. Political and social themes were strong at the time. Many of the artists were members of The Artists International Association, which was established in 1933 to promote and support left-wing causes.

The echoes in today’s social and political contexts were clear: socially engaged and activist practice, treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, conflicts and war, the establishment of the Artists Union England.

Gallery 2 showed more work from the post-war period, both abstract and figurative, some of it quite light-hearted in appearance and subject. It was great to see women sculptors well-represented in the exhibition.


  • Featured image: Reg Butler (1955) Model for the Unknown Political Prisoner.
  • Betty Rea (1956-7) Girls in the Wind.
  • William Turnbull (1949) Playground.


The Sculpture Collections (2018) [Exhibition] Leeds Art Gallery and Henry Moore Institute, 22 March – 2 September.


Art Chat 16 March: art for the senses

I’m pleased to be hosting another Art Chat at Leeds Art Gallery on 16 March, 11am – 12 noon.

The theme this time will be art for the senses, further information below:

Which of our senses do we use in the gallery?

Do any artworks in the collection engage our senses other than, or as well as, sight?

For example: ‘Falling and Walking’ by Anne Hardy has been the subject of a previous Art Chat. This new installation is described as a “sensory landscape” and fills one of the downstairs galleries .It is only open to four people at a time, so we won’t all be able to go in together. You might want to arrive early or pop in another time.

But don’t worry if you haven’t experienced it yet.
We’ll be discovering and discussing other artworks that appeal to different senses.

Art Chat is open to everyone regardless of how much you know about art. We particularly welcome disabled people to join us.

Meet at reception at 11.00 am.

Booking isn’t essential, but it’s nice to have an idea of how many people are coming, so register here:

Art Chat 2: Labels in the gallery

I returned to host another Art Chat at Leeds Art Gallery today (2.2.18). Our discussion was about the labels accompanying artworks: what do you think of them? Are they easy to understand? Readable? Could the information be provided differently?

It was a great discussion, with loads of opinions shared. Twenty people came, ages ranging from the 20s to the 70s, disabled and non-disabled people.

Here are some notes from our discussion:

img_5905Focussed on the Ziff Gallery (works acquired before 1900) and the portrait collection at the top of the stairs. In Ziff Gallery, people split into small groups and looked at different paintings.

What are labels for?

  • To give more information about art
  • To give context
  • Information about the artist
  • Provoke thought
  • “I like to look at labels for modern art because it can be difficult to interpret”.

Ziff Gallery

img_5271-2Design and placement of labels

  • Font size too small
  • Too far away / too low to read (even for young people!)
  • Black on white may be too harsh, but need to ensure excellent colour contrast.
  • With the amount of text on each label, however, if the font size was increased they would have to double in size, which people thought would be too intrusive.
  • It was sometimes difficult to locate the right label.
  • How to include enough information with fewer words!

Content of labels

Some people found the amount of information ok, although many thought there was too much or it was unhelpful:

  • Too much information about the artist and not enough about the art
  • A lot of unnecessary information about artists eg where they studied, where they lived and what they died of
  • Liked labels which gave a bit of information but encouraged you to find out more
  • Many of the labels have extremely long sentences which makes them difficult to read and digest. Not designed for public audience.
  • Before looking at the label one group thought it was a religious scene, but it turned out to be mythical. The label wasn’t particularly helpful unless you were familiar with the story already.

This sums things up quite well:

How to provide extra information for people that want it:

  • Leaflets
  • Sheets to read in the gallery
  • “Ping pong bats” of information – although not popular as can just lead to you looking at the info rather than artwork
  • Audio guides – mixed response
  • Audio description would make them more accessible for blind and partially sighted people
  • QR codes – not many people had spotted these, didn’t think they were obvious. Also, not everyone has a smartphone or knows what a QR code is.
  • QR codes could link to videos, sign language, websites etc – for more information and to improve access
  • Human interaction – staff / volunteers to welcome you, tell you more if you want it. This can also help overcome some of the access issues around labels.
  • Better links with the art library

Portrait collection at top of stairs


While most people liked the arrangement of many pictures together, some access issues were highlighted. For visually impaired people it’s difficult to pick out individual works, its confusing and overwhelming.

  • “You’re not looking at labels, just looking at art”
  • No labels to interfere with the work
  • You can step back to look, more people can look at the same time
  • There’s less pressure without labels, you can figure it out for yourself
  • Great for children
  • People generally thought the accompanying information sheets were clear. Although the contrast with the Ziff Gallery was noted – in Ziff there’s loads of info, here it’s just basic.
  • It’s a curatorial / artistic choice.

Art Chat 2 Feb 18

Other points

People feel inferior looking at art, don’t trust their own opinions and feel they need to be told how to interpret work, particularly contemporary art.

Artists want their work to be appreciated, not necessarily understood. Therefore, different interpretations are fine.

People’s expectations are different, some people want more information. They are frustrated if it’s not available.

Layering of information would meet different needs, from basic details through to background info, then QR codes or similar for those who want to know more.

Too much information “restricts my creative thinking about the picture. If I want to find out more later, I can.”

Art Chat takes place weekly. It’s an informal opportunity, open to all, to look at and talk about, items in the gallery’s collections or exhibitions.

My next session will be Friday 15 March, 11 am – 12 noon. All welcome.