History of Living Paintings
In 2015, Living Paintings reached the milestone figure of 10,000 library members. We also celebrated 25 years of publishing and lending our unique Touch to See books to blind and partially sighted people across the UK.
How it all began
Living Paintings was formed in 1989 by Alison Oldland MBE, formerly a lecturer in Art History. Alison would say that the story of how Living Paintings came about was a ‘typical Oldland family story’ i.e. a tale of the unexpected. Alison wanted another family dog but not one that was going to chew her furniture. As a result the family ‘adopted’ a rejected trainee guide dog, Emma, and from the day she arrived in the house it was clear why this dopey, soppy, blonde had not made the grade!
To say “thank you”, Alison decided to give a series of lectures in her beloved History of Art to raise money for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Tony Castleton, then Head of Appeals for Guide Dogs, came to the first one. He is blind. Projecting images of great masters onto a screen and conscious that a member of the audience could not see them, Alison took great care in describing what was being looked at. Tony enjoyed it so much that he asked her to record descriptions of other works of art for him. The seed for an incredible idea was sown.
Realising that there was a possibility of sharing her great love of art with blind and partially sighted people, Alison was inspired to do more. Little did she know that this would lead to her setting up a national, award-winning charity. She was about to break new ground.
No one had ever before thought of helping blind and partially sighted people engage with and enjoy pictures let alone great works of art. Twenty five years ago, it was deemed to be extraordinary, if not slightly mad. The cries of “why on earth would a blind person want to know about pictures” added extra fuel to Alison’s fire.
Developing the process
Alison wanted to add a relief image to her audio descriptions. This would add another layer of information through touch. After numerous attempts that were tried, tested and improved, she was finally successful!
Developing a concept that challenged established thinking meant that Alison needed to turn directly to the people she wanted to help. She formed a new family (as if 5 children was not enough!) of blind and partially sighted friends. They helped with testing and working out how best to deliver this new concept. Living Paintings can thank its lucky stars for this as it established the ethos of listening carefully to the feedback of our beneficiaries which continues to this day.
What came next
Living Paintings began by providing a range of art and leisure interest books for adults. Next we introduced projects for children, designed to help them learn to read, enjoy picture books and have educational resources to use in school and at home.
Living Paintings’ unique Touch to See books had arrived! To make sure there were no barriers to accessing them the Living Paintings postal library was established and today reaches 10,000 people across the UK. We now offer a range of books for all ages from pre-school, through the teenage years to adults. Visit our online library to browse the complete catalogue.
Rewarded for her work
In 1989 Alison received a National Arts Collection Fund Award (now The Art Fund) by HRH The Prince of Wales. The award was “to reward the work of those who have contributed outstandingly to the visual arts”. In 1994 she became the first winner of the Guardian Jerwood Award for individual excellence in the charity field. Alison was appointed an M.B.E. for her work with Living Paintings in 1997. She remained the active chairman of the charity until her death in 2008.
Alison was very proud of Living Paintings. She wrote. “As Chairman it gives me great pleasure to have seen this idea, which came to me more by chance than good management, grow into something which, to quote a blind member, “breaks down the barriers in a sighted world”.
Her daughter, Camilla, has been Chief Executive of the charity for 25 years and continues to build on her idea and inspiration.
This quote from Kali Gilbert sums up the difference we make to the lives of blind and partially sighted people:
“Living Paintings has allowed Tayen to rediscover her love for books again. Before her full vision loss, Tayen loved to look at books and I thought that love had gone with her sight, but Living Paintings has given her a new way to explore and discover. They are fantastic.”