In this article, I examine images of blind people in nineteenth-century Europe and America, and question the ways in which shifting sensory hierarchies constituted the representation of blindness in this period. I focus particularly on images of blind people reading by touch, an activity that became a public symbol of the various initiatives and advancements in education and training that were celebrated by both blind and sighted spokespeople. My discussion is structured around institutionally- and individually-commissioned portraits and I distinguish between the different agendas shaping representations of blind people. These include instances where blind people's achievements are problematically displayed for sighted benefactors; as well as examples of blind people determining the compositional form and modes of circulation of their likenesses thus altering "key directions in figurative possibilities" (Snyder 173). Moreover, the portraits I consider demonstrate the multisensory status of images, alerting us to a nineteenth-century aesthetic that was shaped by touch as well as vision. I draw on sensory culture theory to argue that attending to the experience and representation of the haptic in the circulation of visual images of blind people signals a participatory beholding, via which blindness is creatively – rather than critically – engaged.

Blindness was represented in nineteenth-century portraiture in multifaceted ways which were shaped by the complex interactions of artists, commissioners and blind sitters. The engagement of blind people with both the compositional forms and circulatory modes of their likenesses created new opportunities of beholding the experience of blindness. In this article, I show how blind people were both represented in, and actively used, visual media to promote positive images of the experience of blindness as a corrective to stereotypical depictions of them as uneducated, poor and itinerant. Significantly, this coincides with important developments in blind education and advocacy, which centred on the development of raised-print systems that provided blind people with new access to the written word via touch from the 1820s onwards. The images I have assembled in this essay all depict or acknowledge this new mode of literacy. Reading by touch became a public symbol of the various initiatives and advancements in education and training that were celebrated by both sighted and blind spokespeople for the way they opened out the social, cultural and spiritual potential of blind communities.

Representations of blindness prior to the nineteenth century were concerned largely with its role within mythical and biblical narratives, or with blind people's itinerant existence (thus linking blindness with poverty). 1 Blindness was often the subject of an anxious gaze, with observers including artists and writers worried about the ways in which a loss of vision equated to a diminishment of social and cultural status. Notably for my discussion, the popular figure of the blind beggar was increasingly represented with a label bearing the inscription "blind" from the late eighteenth century onwards, a gesture which signified the person's blindness, and which also, in an increasingly literate society, ironically reminded the viewer of their inability to participate in a visible print economy. This is exemplified in an early-nineteenth century etching by John Thomas Smith of a blind seller of halfpenny ballads (fig. 1).

John Thomas Smith, 'A sitting blind beggar sells love sonnets to obtain money with a young boy,' 1816. More description below.

Fig. 1: John Thomas Smith, 'A sitting blind beggar sells 'love sonnets' to obtain money with a young boy'. Etching, 1816. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

An etching, in black and white tones, depicts an old man in a long, light-coloured coat, with white hair and beard, seated in front of a wall and holding a basket of printed papers. His eyes are shut and cast downwards. A placard around his neck reads "Pray pity the blind." A boy of about fourteen sits behind him to the right, looking in his direction.

He bears a written plea for assistance and charity ('Pray Pity the Blind'), and he relies for his meagre income upon the sale of printed texts, which he presumably cannot read (Smith). Embossed literature, introduced to Britain some ten years after Smith's print, offered an alternative opportunity for blind people to participate more directly in a textual economy. Whilst the representational mode of the blind beggar continued to an extent in nineteenth-century culture, in this essay I identify more positive cultural associations between blindness and literacy. 2 Blind communities seized on public interest in reading by touch to fashion a corrective iconography for blindness marked by education and industry.

Nineteenth-century interest in touch was contextualised by a reframing of sensory hierarchies, whereby philosophers, scientists and psychologists promoted the role of touch as an information-gathering sense. 3 This shift is discernible in the images I discuss, which tend to portray what a blind person could do, rather than pointing to their lack, thus complicating ideas around what constituted a sensory impairment and, relatedly, disability (Tilley and Olsen). Yet as I and others including Vanessa Warne have discussed elsewhere, the discourse around tactile reading was also contradictory, and, certainly in the earlier part of the century, visual prejudices continued to shape the form of raised alphabets at a design level; whilst anxieties around the nature of blindness continued to prohibit a broader expansion of literary materials (Warne 56; Tilley, "The Sentimental Touch" 232-33). These debates are indicative of what has been described in disability studies as an ocularcentric privileging in modern culture: that is, a privileging of vision as the dominant mode for knowing (Garland-Thomson 25). 4 Certainly, there is a tension inherent in the images I introduce which use visual mediums to communicate ideas to largely sighted audiences about the ways in which blind people learned via touch. My discussion is structured around institutionally- and individually-commissioned portraits: this will enable me to distinguish between the different agendas shaping representations of blind people, and thus to explore these tensions further. However, I emphasize the multifarious work these portraits do and consider – borrowing from Sharon L. Snyder – how they are "significations of disability" which "alter key directions in figurative possibilities" (173). In particular, the portraits I consider demonstrate the multisensory status of images, alerting us to a nineteenth-century aesthetic that was shaped by touch as well as vision. 5 In the final part of my discussion, I will turn to sensory culture theory to develop more nuanced readings of the material and sensory functions of these images as objects, which are handled, exchanged and beheld by both sighted and blind people, with distinctive effects generated by the different mediums of print, photography and painting. I argue that attending to the experience and representation of the haptic in the circulation of visual images of blind people can signal a participatory beholding, via which blindness is creatively – rather than critically – engaged (Calè and di Bello 4). 6

Institutional portraits of blindness: conforming to visual modes

The following images exemplify the practice of using portraiture to promote the work of institutions committed to blind people's education and training, and signal the complex and contradictory agendas that shaped representations of blind people reading by touch. Whilst this mode of portraiture raises ethical questions about the potential exploitation of sitters to serve institutional agendas (including fundraising), often consolidating ableist narratives, it nonetheless also conferred status on blind communities by re-framing blind people as intellectual, active and independent.

W. Sharp, 'Portrait of Oliver Caswell and Laura Bridgman reading embossed letters from a book.' More description below.

Fig. 2: 'Portrait of Oliver Caswell and Laura Bridgman reading embossed letters from a book'. Lithograph by W. Sharp, after Alanson Fisher. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

A lithograph in black and white tones shows two young blind people: on the left a boy of about fourteen and standing next to him on the right a girl of about sixteen. They are positioned in an interior: behind the girl to the right is an open window, with tree leaves just visible behind the window frame. In front of her to the right is a desk, on which rests a large book and a sheet of paper, which has been partly inscribed: a ruler rests below the last line of writing. The boy and girl are facing forward, and lean in slightly towards each other. He wears a long-sleeved coat with a white collar and black cravat. His eyes are closed. She wears a dark, long-sleeved dress, with a large white collar. Her eyes are covered by dark glasses. They are holding a book: the girl's left hand is laid over the boy's left hand, which is positioned on the book, his index finger stretched out to touch the paper. The lithograph is inscribed with the names Oliver Caswell and Laura Bridgman made in square handwriting in Roman script.

Figure 2 depicts Laura Bridgman and Oliver Caswell, two pupils of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, which was directed by the charismatic, sighted Samuel Gridley Howe. Bridgman was arguably the heroine in the story of blindness and literacy at the mid-nineteenth century, as important studies by Elisabeth Gitter and Karen Bourrier have demonstrated, and was famous for having learned a system of language based on arbitrary signs. Celebrated by Howe, she gained international fame following Charles Dickens's account of his meeting with her on his tour of America in 1842, published in American Notes for General Circulation (33-71). Touch is embedded in the portrait and the pair's tactile intelligence clearly emphasized. The lithograph itself has a sense of waxy roundness, in which the flesh and fingers have an almost three-dimensional quality, corresponding to the haptic nature of Bridgman's subjectivity.

However, as I've written elsewhere, Howe's continued promotion at the mid-nineteenth century of reading and writing systems based on the Roman alphabet, more conveniently legible to the eye of the Institution's sighted instructors, was problematically at odds with some of Perkins's more progressive goals (Tilley, "The Sentimental Touch" 226-227, 230-233). That tension is embodied in this image. At the bottom of the image, both Caswell's and Bridgman's signatures have been inscribed, pencilled in the standard square handwriting Perkins pupils were taught to write in and which conformed to sighted literacy practices. 7 Their signatures alert us firstly to Howe's concern that pupils learn a system of writing based on the Roman letter rather than one of the so-called arbitrary alphabetic systems in circulation that were more suited to touch but illegible to sighted teachers. Secondly, they point to Howe's anxiety that pupils might be able to author their own text in an embossed format, thus facilitating private communication between them. Rather, the inclusion of their signatures in this format suggests how their entry into literacy was intended to both conform to and elicit the admiration of sighted audiences. The inscription added in pencil to the print in the Wellcome collection ("Lady Ingliss, with Mrs Howe's [wife of the Perkins director, Samuel Gridley Howe] kind regards") suggests that the print was a gift to an existing or potential benefactor. The inscription indicates the ideological function that the print was supposed to perform as a visual display of the achievements of the Perkins Institute. It enacts a more genteel version of the street readings performed by blind beggars, a practice which Warne argues linked "blind literacy with poverty and charity […] consequently distancing it from sighted reading practices" (59). By framing blind reading as a spectacle, both street reading and displays of blind reading in schools traded on the exceptionality of finger reading in order to raise either personal income or charitable funds (58-59). This portrait thus raises an ethical question concerning how individuals – notably Laura Bridgman in this example – were co-opted into promoting the agendas of sighted educationalists.

Whilst Warne focuses on displays of tactile reading which helped reinforce the links between blindness and poverty, figure 3 is an institutional portrait which helped to re-orientate the relationship between blindness, literacy and ability (Warne 58-61).

Unknown, 'Work-School for the Blind, Euston Road,' 1858. More description below.

Fig. 3: Unknown engraver after Hubbard, Work-School for the Blind, Euston Road. Engraving (published in Illustrated London News, 24 April 1858). Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo.

An engraving in black and white is a group portrait depicting a scene of quiet industry and education: two women and two men are seated around a desk, making brushes and working a machine; three men are seated on the floor in front of the table, two engaged in basket making and cane work, one reading an embossed book. A man stands by the doorway laden with handcrafted items, suggesting that he is about to leave to sell some of the group's wares. All the sitters wear Victorian clothing: the men wear heavy coats over suits, and the women long dark dresses. The wall directly behind the table is decorated with three panels, one of which appears to be a decorated picture, and a rectangular woven object. A printed caption at the bottom of the image reads 'Work-School for the Blind, Euston-Road'.

This group portrait depicts some of the blind workers of a workshop in London operated by the Association For Promoting the General Welfare of the Blind, established and managed in the 1850s by two blind people, Elizabeth Gilbert and William Hanks Levy. The original portrait, painted by an artist named Hubbard, was commissioned in 1858, then engraved and published alongside an account of the workshop in the Illustrated London News in 1858. This portrait emphasizes the importance of tactile reading by placing the reader in the centre of the image frame; yet it also de-spectacularizes the act by quietly absorbing it into a scene of wider industry. The reader, rather than displaying his skills as a finger reader by reading out loud to the wider group, instead appears to be absorbed in a more private contemplation of the text.

The workshop community was divided, however, between moderate and radical approaches towards blind identity. Elizabeth Gilbert's first biographer Frances Martin (a long-term friend of Gilbert) claimed that she advocated cooperation between sighted and blind people, so that, she argued "the blind may be left those processes in which the loss of sight places them at the least disadvantage" (133). Gilbert favoured training in handicrafts, as shown in this portrait. She also articulated a more moderate position than some of her other colleagues, including Levy. Despite his lack of wealth, Levy had risen to the position of teacher at the London Society for Teaching the Blind to Read, and was selected by the society to demonstrate his reading before Queen Victoria at the Great Exhibition of 1851, around the time he met Gilbert in the early 1850s. The Association initially, according to Levy's wishes, employed only blind people, though this was not practical for a sustained period and sighted co-workers were introduced.

Martin's chastisement of Levy suggests the distaste with which polite sighted society may have held blind radicalism, as she described him as one with "an extreme view", who "himself educated in an institution, surrounded only by blind people, often of a very feeble capacity, had learned to look upon himself more as a member of an oppressed and persecuted race than as an afflicted man" (87). Levy's more radical aims were shared by other blind spokespeople at this time, including the writer and editor John Bird, the musician Alexander Mitchell (who set up a short-lived Society for Improving the Condition of the Blind in Walworth Road), the poet Edmund White, and the teacher, interpreter and musician Mrs Hippolyte van Landeghem. Their writings characteristically display anger at the way in which they had been treated as inferior by sighted people in positions of power. This portrait however has no sense of anger or radicalism; rather, the figures have been absorbed into a normative scene of industrious self-improvement. No individual bears any visible markers of blindness, and all display qualities of decorum and quietude. They certainly do not resemble the kind of rabble that Martin fears characterises blind communities. As such, the portrait conforms to dominant sighted cultural expectations of industrious, compliant blind people. The following section extends this analysis by considering the ways in which blind individuals absorbed trends in contemporary photographic portraiture to promote their professional and personal identities. As individually-commissioned portraits, these images evidence greater levels of autonomy in self-presentation, whilst consolidating divisions in tactile reading practices according to gender.

Sitter-commissioned portraiture: creating parity

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues that the "most prevalent pictures of people with disabilities have come to us through the genres of freak show photography, charity campaigns or medical photography" and that the range of representation has only recently expanded 'as people with disabilities have entered into the newly accessible public realm" (23). However, a large and international community of blind people actively used and commissioned portraiture to establish their place and status within nineteenth-century society. Sitters were frequently depicted with markers that identified them as blind – notably, for my discussion, they were shown touching raised print texts – but these images also drew upon standard iconographies of contemporary photographic portraiture (dress, pose, studio props) to affirm their parity with non-blind peers. The next three images I discuss bear out, avant la lettre, Garland-Thomson's argument relating to a set of twentieth-century portraits, that portraiture can make possible the "recognition of subjects as worthy and – at the same time – disabled" (37). The images I discuss in this section thus perform an ethical function as well, and reflect the extensive activity of blind campaigning and advocacy groups in the nineteenth century. They exemplify how blind people actively used visual technologies to draw attention to their status as literate and educated, particularly through the practice of sharing their portraits with wider communities. Here, however, gendered distinctions between the identities blind men and women could assume become apparent; the form and composition of male portraits are associated with their public work and reputation, whereas the form and composition of female portraits tend to position women within the domestic sphere. 8

William Moon reading. More description below.

Fig. 4: Unknown photographer, William Moon. Published in Light for the Blind: A History of the Origin and Success of Moon's System of Reading (1873). Private Collection.

A photographic portrait of a man of around fifty pasted onto a book frontispiece. The photograph fills about the middle third of the page and is set within a decorative border consisting of two red parallel lines about 1.5cm from the image edge. At the bottom of the image, within the border, is inscribed in red typeface 'W. Moon, LL.D.' The man is standing in an interior setting. Positioned centrally, he faces right. He wears dark glasses, and is dressed in a smart long coat, worn over a jacket or waistcoat. He is of a medium-large build, with a rounded stomach. He is turned towards a wooden desk with a decorated foliage edge. A large book volume rests on this desk, on which both his hands are placed, his fingers stretched out over the text.

Figure 4 is a photographic portrait of William Moon, a blind inventor of one of the leading early embossed alphabets, published in his memoir of 1873. Moon was a particularly keen self-promoter, who did much to secure the success of his alphabetic system in the latter part of the nineteenth century: it was the dominant arbitrary alphabet in Britain, and had a strong global reach through the British Empire, until it was displaced by braille around the turn of the century. Moon's portrait carefully utilizes visual media to inscribe a new relationship between touch, literacy and respectability. Indeed, the portrait resembles his alphabetic system, which adapted the Roman alphabet by reducing it to a fixed number of shapes and symbols that were easier for the finger to process, but appealed to readers who had lost their sight later in life and retained visual memory. Like his alphabet, the portrait blends visual and tactile codes by co-opting the visual form of the photograph to communicate the practice of reading by touch.

Unidentified man reading at a desk. More description below.

Fig. 5: Starbuck, Unidentified Man. Carte de visite, c. 1870s. Private Collection

A photograph in black and white tones shows a man, aged about forty, sitting within an interior setting. He is seated on an ornately decorated chair behind a circular wooden table, across which a large book volume of embossed print spills; his right hand is placed on top of an open page. He wears a dark suit, with a knee-length coat, and a pair of dark glasses. A painted backdrop of bookshelves on the back wall creates an impression of a library, or study. A printed inscription at the bottom of the photograph reads "By Starbuck. Alford".

This set of portraits also highlight the role played by gender in the performance of embossed reading and suggest how efforts to re-frame public perceptions of visual impairment were complicated by their entanglement with other sets of identity politics. Male blind readers were more often depicted with professional props such as desks (see for example fig. 5), reinforcing their role in public discourses of tactile reading, whereas female sitters were usually depicted in domestic interiors, their books awkwardly placed on their laps rather than confidently positioned on desks. These compositions circumscribe the limits for female blind readers, reinforcing wider cultural associations between femininity and private reading. This is epitomized in figure 6, an ambrotype photograph of a blind woman.

Ann Whiting reading with a book in her lap. More description below.

Fig. 6: Unknown Photographer, Ann Whiting. Ambrotype, c. 1860s. Private Collection

A photograph in a gilt frame shows an older woman of about 50 years who is seated, facing forward, in an interior location (behind her left shoulder is a detail of a fireplace). She wears a white lace bonnet and a dark full-sleeved gown, and her eyes are closed. A book consisting of both printed and embossed text rests on her lap, and both her hands are placed on the text, her fingers touching the paper.

Unlike the carte de visite, the ambrotype was a unique object and so created for a more private audience. An inscription on its back reading "Ann Whiting" indicates the sitter's identity. However, I have not been able to trace further information about Ann Whiting. The difficulty of establishing her identify and indeed locating evidence of her experience of blindness in the nineteenth century highlights the challenges faced by researchers who want to question the dominant accounts and representations of blindness that have been left by the historical record. The back of the frame also details that Ann Whiting is "nurse and friend" and gives the dates "1820 to 186-" suggesting this may have been taken as a memento for a friend. The small, handheld size of the ambrotype also speaks of the intimacy of its form. It suggests, perhaps, a sitter taking pleasure or pride in her proficiency of reading, and sharing this skill with a friend.

Whilst implicit, the association between touch and learning represented in these images is reinforced further through the haptic encounters that viewers had with these photographs. Sensory culture studies offers here a fresh way of analysing these objects outside of straightforwardly visual frameworks. As the anthropologist David Howes explains, following a model of inter-sensoriality compels us to "interrelate sensory media, to contextualise them within a total sensory and social environment" that also takes account of embodied experience (169). Further, the visual anthropologist and curator Elizabeth Edwards reminds us that photographs are not simply spectral images to be looked at; they are also material, multi-sensory objects that are handled, touched and caressed: "in considering the photograph we have to consider not just sight but even touch and smell" ("Grasping the Image" 421). Whilst the original intention of a photograph may be to create an image, Edwards demonstrates how "the sensory engagement with the physical photograph as material object" elicits "specific gestural and haptic forms" that shape and enhance our affective engagement with it ("Thinking Photography" 31, 45). Figures 4, 5 and 6 are typical of other examples of portraits of blind people, which were often circulated as prints embedded into books, or small photographic images pasted into albums or exchanged by hand. As such, they draw attention to the tactile dimension of sighted reading in nineteenth-century culture, reconfiguring directions in figurative possibilities, as Sharon Snyder has claimed, as one potentiality for disability representation (173).

Beholding portraits

Thus far, my discussion has explored how we can approach portraits of blind people both critically and recuperatively. As well as being ocularcentric artefacts, these portraits are also objects which engage the sense of touch, through their themes, material form and circulation,. This resonates with the notion of "feeling seeing, or seeing feelingly", that Mark Paterson has recently identified in the "sharing of affective experience" between blind writers and predominantly sighted readers in literary genres, as he outlines how "literary tropes and persistent myths of blindness were counterbalanced by autobiographical or 'insider' accounts". Significantly, Paterson argues that:

descriptions, portrayals, and evocations of aesthetic experience by a non-visual subject have heightened the role of the haptic, of somatic sensibilities, of non-visual experiences related through sensory associations and analogues that indicate a sensorially reconfigured body. (174)

A similar heightening of haptic and somatic sensibilities and empathic exchange between blindness, sight and touch structures the representations of blindness I have discussed. I now want to consider how such pictorial depictions of blindness may also have shaped experiments in portraiture in the wider cultural imagination, and will explore the ways in which attending to the experience and representation of the haptic in the circulation of visual images of blind people can signal a participatory "beholding", similar to Paterson's notion of empathic vision (Calè and di Bello 4). I argue that we need to attend not simply to the binary of sightedness/blindness in these representations, but to explore – as Georgina Kleege has emphasized in her discussion of blindness and visual culture – a theory of "multiple senses … which function sometimes in concert with and sometimes in counterpoint to others" (187).

Such a multisensory dynamic is embodied in a double portrait of the leading Victorian-era Liberal politician Henry Fawcett, who became blind in his mid-twenties, and his wife, the writer and suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, by the Pre-Raphealite artist Ford Madox Brown, painted in 1872.

Ford Maddox Brown's portrait of Henry Fawcett and Dame Millicent Garett Fawcett. More description below.

Fig. 7: Ford Madox Brown, Henry Fawcett; Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett (née Garrett). Oil on canvas, 1872. © National Portrait Gallery, London

A painting depicts a man and woman aged around 40 and 25 respectively. The man is seated in an armchair and is wearing academic dress of a long gown in brown tones worn over a dark suit, which is buttoned up to his breastplate: a pinned cravat and white collar are above it. His face is white and pale, his hair is brown-blonde and cut short. His eyes are shut and his eyelids appear scarred. The woman sits on his left perched on the side of the chair, slightly raised above him and looking in his direction but not quite focused on him. She wears a long-sleeved jacket in dark brown, fringed at the sleeves and collar in white lace, over a full-length skirt or dress in a lighter brown silk material. Her face is also white and pale, and her blonde-red hair is worn in braids. Her right arm is wrapped across his right shoulder, and she holds a pen in her right hand; their left hands are touching and together holding a piece of paper, to which the man gestures with his right hand. His mouth is open, as if in speech.

Henry Fawcett's self is shaped through the senses of sound and crucially touch – both in his hands that encircle his wife, who co-authored a volume on political economy with him in the same year that Brown's portrait was painted – and in a touch that gestures towards paper. The portrait positions its audiences as beholders, rather than simply viewers, by fostering an embodied response to its subjects. Beholders are invited less to consider what Fawcett cannot see, and more to anticipate what he might say, to feel the pressure of touch, and stroke the different textures of creamy skin, crisp paper, silk dress and woollen academic gown, which are all vividly rendered in the painting. There is an encouragement to behold, rather than simply view, the portrait of Fawcett and his wife. Whilst Fawcett himself never mastered finger reading, he was an important advocate for blind people's education, speaking at platforms on the issue and leading efforts to establish a Royal Commission on blindness, which took place after his death in 1884 (Holt 51, 66-69).

In conclusion, I want to consider the Danish painter Ejnar Nielsen's A Blind Girl Reading (1905), which brings together several of the themes raised throughout this article.

Ejnar Nielsen, 'A Blind Girl Reading.' More description below.

Fig. 8: Ejnar Nielsen, A Blind Girl Reading. Oil on canvas, 1905. © DACS 2018

A painting shows a young woman aged about 20 who is sitting in a darkened room, with a large opened book of embossed text resting on her lap (the pages are painted in white and green colours); she holds the book with her right hand whilst tracking text with the fingers of her left hand. She is dressed in a full-length, long-sleeved dress in a heavy dark material. Her face is pale and white, and her eyes closed. Behind her, and to the bottom right of the picture, a thin shaft of light indicates the presence of a shut door.

Like Brown, Nielsen depicts his subject is depicted in an interior setting and again the darkened background emphasizes the interiority of private reading. The work also suggests the coincidence of the subject's and the artist's tactile intelligence. The embossed book, which is built up in layers of green and white paint, is the most thickly painted area of the canvas and the text the girl touches merges into the medium of paint. Nielsen seems drawn to the subject of blindness not simply to reflect on the limits of sight, but also to explore the tactile qualities of paint. The power of the gaze is challenged, as sight is suggested to be the inferior sense, an aspect also indicated by the encroaching darkness. Crucially, it is the raised-print book that radiates the most light, challenging traditional associations of sight with knowledge. 9 Further, the girl's closed eyes signal to the beholder that she does not operate within the sighted realm, whilst the foregrounding of her hands and the richly textured book re-orient the painting's sensory modality around touch and the haptic. Significantly, however, whilst the blind girl's hands are represented directly touching the book, museum display conditions place the painting outside the reach of the beholder's touch, necessitating the working of a tactile imagination to share the girl's experience. 10

My discussion has drawn attention to the often-contradictory agendas that shaped the production of these portraits. Certainly, blind sitters conformed to ocular modes of representation through the very act of having their likenesses captured in photographic or painted mediums. At the same time, cultural perceptions of embossed literature produced new contexts and modes through which blind people might be portrayed, and in turn provided rich imaginative material for ongoing haptic engagements with the multisensory image. Whilst the historical record is poor in terms of documenting both sighted people's and blind people's responses to these portraits, I have suggested ways of approaching these representations which move beyond an othering that merely stresses the limits of sight. Instead, I have shown how we might also consider these portraits as objects that empathically depend on the embodied conditions through which nineteenth-century audiences, with a range of visual and tactile perceptions and experiences, both viewed and handled cultural media. Bringing together this archive of images affords ways for contemporary audiences similarly to critically and creatively respond to blindness as a subject of the visual arts.

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  • Smith, John Thomas. "A sitting blind beggar sells 'love sonnets' to obtain money with a young boy. Etching by J.T. Smith after himself, 1816." 1816, Wellcome Collection, London. wellcomecollection.org/works/e8y3z9z4.
  • Snyder, Sharon L. "Infinities of Forms: Disability Figures in Artistic Traditions." Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, edited by Sharon L. Snyder, et al., Modern Language Association of America, 2002, pp. 173-196.
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  • ---. "The Sentimental Touch: Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop and the Feeling Reader." Journal of Victorian Culture, vol. 16, no. 2, 1 Aug. 2011, pp. 226-241. https://doi.org/10.1080/13555502.2011.589679
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  1. For a fuller discussion of trends in representing blind people prior to the nineteenth century, consult Barasch 115-148. For a discussion of the ways in which the subject of blindness shaped Western aesthetic practice from the Renaissance to the contemporary period consult Mirzoeff 37-57.
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  2. For example, John Everett Millais's famous painting of an itinerant blind girl, The Blind Girl (1856), depicts her with a label round her neck inscribed "blind".
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  3. For further discussions of nineteenth-century contexts of touch consult Parisi; Tilley 2014.
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  4. For a discussion of the "terminological typology of visual impairment", and the effects of ocularcentrism, consult Bolt, The Metanarrative 17-22. For a more focused discussion on the function of ocularcentrism in nineteenth-century culture, consult Bolt, "Aesthetic Blindness" 94.
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  5. For a discussion of the ways in which cultural historians, including Calè and di Bello, have challenged critical accounts of nineteenth-century culture as ocularcentric (notably Crary) consult Tilley Blindness and Writing, 34-35.
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  6. Calè and di Bello use this term to describe embodied, rather than simply visual, practices of interacting with cultural material amongst nineteenth-century audiences, as part of their efforts to challenge dominant critical accounts of the period (for example Crary). It is in this sense that I employ the term, although there is also overlap in my discussion with Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's use of 'beholding' in her exploration of whether and how staring at subjects with disabilities might be 'ethical'. Beholding, argues Garland-Thomson, allows the beholder to "vivify human empathy through bearing visual witness" (185-96, 188), suggesting that the act of looking in turn generates empathic, embodied effects in the viewer.
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  7. Presumably Bridgman's and Caswell's signatures were included to demonstrate their aptitude in writing as well as in reading.
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  8. Nicholas Mirzoeff draws attention to further important ways in which blindness as a metaphoric framework in aesthetic discourse and practice is gendered, noting how 'blindness-as-lack-of-sight affects only women, whereas blindness-as-insight is a peculiarly male phenomenon' (55).
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  9. For a fuller discussion on the problematic association of sight with knowledge within an ableist metanarrative of blindness, consult Bolt, The Metanarrative 17-22.
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  10. Bernard Berenson introduced the term "tactile imagination" in his 1896 study of Florentine painters, as part of his advocating for an embodied aesthetic practice (5).
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