My father in law, Eric Leary, was totally blind from the age of 8. During an impromptu children’s game of cricket on waste ground, somewhere in the east end of London, he was struck in the eye by a potato. This was in the 1920’s, the bat was a plank of wood, the stumps a cardboard box, and the pitch just the distance from “ball” to “bat”. The ball, of course, was the potato that changed his life forever. He was treated at Moorfields Eye Hospital but developed “complementary” blindness in the other eye a few days later and subsequently had both enucleated. Eric’s reaction to total blindness, as a child, was simple acceptance but later as an adolescent and adult he came to consider his accident as good fortune and an asset. The local Council paid for his education at Worcester College for the Blind, where he was not only educated academically but also taught blind skills, not just braille but spatial awareness, judging distance from sound, and practical domestic skills promoting independence, (how to pour a cup of tea without burning yourself). He did well academically, he was an excellent rower competing at Henley, and he played the piano, using a “stride piano” technique where the right hand played the melody and the left hand oscillated rhythmically over different chords like a horizontal metronome. I imagine he must have interested a few girls that way in pubs he commonly frequented in his Worcester salad days.
He trained and qualified as a physiotherapist and had a “Harley Street” practice in the war years where he said that his blindness attracted clients who felt he had extra powers. He did have extra powers, though not metaphysical, just good communication skills, an understanding of human nature, common sense and a certain business acumen. He married, had three children, developed a popular provincial practice and taught anatomy twice a week at the Physiotherapy School for the Blind in central London. He never had a guide dog or used an extended white stick for mobility but he did carry a short retracted stick held under his armpit, much as one might carry a copy of the Times. No one knew why and no one ever bothered to ask. His relationship with his children was very simple, he looked after them and they looked after him.
I first met him as a medical student through his daughter, my eventual wife, in the mid 1970’s. Eric and I rapidly became good friends, we enjoyed a common interest in wine, beer, and anatomy and I came to enjoy being absorbed into his family’s blind world. Without vision, talking becomes the principle means of communication, and words, and choice of words, and inflection in words became crucial. The common visual accompaniments of conversation, smiling, nodding, gesticulating, and pointing became obsolescent to be replaced by a constant requirement and later an unconscious reflex to portray the visual world in words. Walking with him closely attached with his hand tucked into my elbow chatting about this and that and relating visual information that might be of interest became a developing and enjoyable verbal skill. I came to look on him as a guru of wise words and wisdom, and very soon and without exaggeration I came to love him, as one does a revered and tender father.
A short while after becoming his son in law I just had some inkling or itching that I enjoyed looking at pictures and paintings. On a coach trip to Paris, I wanted to see the Impressionist paintings then housed in the Jeu de Paume, a neoclassical building built in the mid 19th century, on the corner of
the Place de la Concorde. Eric was very keen to come, I presumed just for the adventure of travelling in Paris but also the certain prospect of a beer or two afterwards. Arriving, I bought a tiny art book on the collection, a book which I still have as a prized possession, and it was clear from the start that Eric was keen to be an active part of this visit not simply a passive attachment to my elbow.
So how do you describe a painting to a blind man waiting agog for enlightenment? How do you describe line, colours, brushwork, shape, tone, and texture to someone who last saw such qualities more than fifty years before? With loss of vision comes loss of conception and memory of our visual world, it is not the same as the pretence of blindness by simply closing your eyes. How too would Eric experience Cezanne’s “little sensations”, those patches of colour which create an electrical and emotional charge. Of course none of these thoughts actually went through my head as we stood in front of one of Monet’s “Waterlilies”, all I felt was a feeling of helplessness.
So I fell back on the little book and related the life of the artist, the context of the artwork, the place of Impressionism in the history of western art , all very simply and succinctly put in this tiny gem of a book. We spent a happy hour in the Jeu de Paume and later a happy hour in a local bar where we came to the conclusion that Gauguin had the most interesting life story, Sisley the least, and that Van Gogh was indeed truly mad. Clearly not the most sophisticated of reflections but it was a start and it had been fun.
Eric and I must have visited over a dozen art exhibitions subsequently and my various narratives continued and became more sophisticated and practiced. Until the natural rhythms of life took him away from us, such visits were one of a number of experiences that we shared forging a bond that still exists and indeed is still evolving. In the last eight years I have been teaching medical students the essential skills of observation, analysis and reflection through the medium of the visual arts. I teach also the importance of context and ambiguity, both very prevalent in artworks. This process started for me in the Jeu de Paume with Eric tucked into my elbow and indeed I still feel his little tugs, like little sensations, signalling some message, if only the need for a beer.