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Living Paintings

Charity founder Alison Oldland recording in a local radio station

1989

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.

Shakespeare tactile picture

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 found a the optimum, successful format.

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 five children was not enough!) of blind and partially sighted friends that grew rapidly from 50 to 300 members. 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.

A successful method of explaining images through touch (raised images) and sound (evocative audio descriptions) having been found, the next challenge was to establish how to get these audio tactile books into the hands of blind people. As all Alison’s efforts were about providing access it was decided to set up a free, postal library to distribute these unique, ground breaking resources. Free so that anyone no matter their financial position could benefit and Postal so that the books could reach everyone no matter where they live.

At this point in the story Camilla, Alison’s daughter, returned from travelling the world and whilst job hunting started helping out. It wasn’t long before she became ‘hooked’ and started running the newly formed charity. Alison sadly passed away in 2008, but her legacy has continued and 30 years later Camilla still leads the charity.

“I can’t believe that it has been 30 years! So much has happened over that time. It has been amazing, fun, inspiring and there’s always been something new that we have aimed for. Of course, there have been times when it’s been pretty tough but here’s the thing; to this day stories from our beneficiaries about how our work is changing their lives still bring me to tears. They are what inspire me through thick and thin to make sure Living Paintings stays in touch with its purpose and always continues to do more.”
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Soon after Camilla began with Living Paintings the question was raised in her and Alison’s mind: “what else can we do with this Touch to See system we have developed?” Immediately they turned their attention to working with blind and partially sighted children and not long thereafter their first offering for youngsters was developed. They focussed on supporting literacy attainment by adding tactile and audio extras, plus Braille text, to normal, published books. The demand was astonishing and the children’s library began in earnest.

Since then Living Paintings has grown into the organisation you see today reaching 14,000 blind and partially sighted people and their families with an ever expanding library of Touch to See books for all ages from 2 years old to 102.

Alison Oldland showing her MBE

Just a few highlights from over the years

• HRH The Prince of Wales presented Alison with an Art Fund (previously NACF) award designed “to reward the work of those who have contributed outstandingly to the visual arts”

• Alison became the first winner of the Guardian Jerwood Award for individual excellence in the charity field.

• HRH the Prince of Wales recorded the introductions for the Touch to See books ‘Paintings from the Royal Collection.

• Alison was honoured with an MBE for her excellent work with Living Paintings.

• A new service, Touch to See Book Clubs, was introduced to enable isolated blind and partially sighted people to enjoy Living Paintings audio and tactile books in a group setting.

• Adaptations of illustrated children’s books have been published at the same time as the mainstream publication so blind children can read them just as their sighted peers would on the day of publication.

• The charity was awarded a NASEN (Special Education Needs Awards) for Inclusive Resources.

A mobile phone sitting on a wooden table top and wrapped in earphones displays the Living Paintings website.

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