Lacquer, Louis XIV and lipspeaking at the Wallace Collection

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The last few weeks leading up to Easter have been pretty busy for me, so it was great to have a break. I have been preoccupied with hopes and fears about my future. I finally reached the end of the assessment for my suitability for a cochlear implant operation. I recently found out that I have been accepted for a cochlear implant. This is great news and I’m really happy about it. But I’m also worried about what lies ahead and I really hope that it is successful.

I worry that the implantation itself will kill off what little natural hearing I have left. But I also feel that I have not got much to lose now so I may as well go for it. Everyday communication has now become so difficult for me that I want to give myself the best chance I possibly can to be able to hear and communicate better with others. Deciding whether or not to have a cochlear implant is a very personal and difficult decision to make, but for me, I now know that I have made the right decision. It would be so wonderful to be able to follow peoples’ conversations and communicate better, instead of hearing half conversations , feeling left out and frustrated or having to rely on my wife and family members to communicate on my behalf.

For the last few years, I’ve felt like I’ve been stuck in-between the hearing world and the deaf world, without feeling fully part of either. I had my full hearing for the first thirty-nine years of my life, so losing it quite suddenly has been a big shock to me, and I am still trying to come to terms with it and learn to adjust to it as best I can.

I have been learning to use lots of different communication methods to try and follow people better. One of them is learning how to lipread people. I find it really difficult and tiring to concentrate hard on peoples’ lip patterns to try and understand what they are saying. It seems to be easier when I am in a quiet environment so that I can hear a little too, but when it’s noisy it is very difficult.

I can lipread my wife Joanna quite well now, but that it is because I know her lip patterns quite well and she is really deaf-aware, speaking clearly and always facing me. On the other hand, if the person I am talking to is not deaf-aware and they keep looking away, or they talk too quickly or mumble their words, it is virtually impossible for me to lip-read them. Hopefully my lipreading will get better in time too, but I still find it really difficult. This is one of the reasons why I really enjoy going to events, which have been made accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people. Recently, for instance, I went to a fascinating accessible talk for lipreaders at the Wallace Collection in Central London. This was a free event organised by the Wallace Collection’s Community Access programme.  Sara Scanlon and Lynne Dubin, the two lipspeakers, were both excellent communicators, which made it much easier for me to follow.

Because English is my first language, my preferred method of accessible communication at an event like this would ideally be live speech-to-text reporting (STTR) on a screen, if the technology were available, but I am open-minded and still finding my own way with different communication methods. I think there is no right and wrong way as long as you can follow what is being said and can communicate well. I found that Sara, in particular, was an excellent communicator because she provided total communication support. She used clear lip-speaking patterns with some sign-supported English (SSE), which I found really easy and helpful to follow. I am now learning BSL and I am finding that I am becoming more visual myself by learning to communicate in this visual, expressive language, although I find it difficult to learn and it will take me years to become any good at it.

The two speakers/guides, Carmen and Edwina, from the Wallace Collection, were excellent too. They took their time to explain things slowly and clearly to us, which really helped my understanding. Carmen, the Curatorial Assistant, gave us a talk about materials and techniques of the decorative arts, which are on display in the Wallace Collection.

She started off by giving us a brief history of the Wallace Collection before going on to describe some of the materials and techniques used in the decorative arts displayed there. The collection itself is housed in Hertford House, a stunning Georgian town house on Manchester Square, which is like an oasis of calm just behind the hustle and bustle of crowded Oxford Street. It displays the beautiful works of art, furniture and ornaments collected by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the illegitimate son of the fourth Marquess. It was bequeathed to the British nation by Sir Richard’s widow, Lady Wallace, in 1897, and turned into a public museum in1900.

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The collection includes many paintings by artists such as Titian, Rembrandt and Velázquez, and I only recently discovered that the most famous painting there is ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ by Hals. Most of Carmen’s talk then focused on the techniques and materials used in the making of the furniture and ornaments used in the collection such as marquetry, which is a way of adding patterns to plain objects using thin veneers of materials such as wood, metal, horn, turtle shell or mother of pearl. The technique was very fashionable in the 17th Century and was used in the design of furniture such as cabinets and other pieces of furniture made of wood.

She said that one of the most famous cabinet-makers of the 17th Century, who used marquetry, was André Charles Boulle (1642-1732), who was furniture maker to King Louis XIV of France. Many of his pieces of furniture are in the Wallace Collection, which we then went on to see after the talk.

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The other main technique, which Carmen described in her talk, was the making of lacquer in Japan, a technique still used today in the making of objects created when the lacquer is applied to a base, such as wood. Her description of the technique was fascinating because it is a very slow, laborious technique involving pure craftsmanship and skill. Basically, lacquer is made from collecting sap from a specific tree in the Japanese countryside and applying many thin layers on the wood until the finished product is hardened and looks glossy. Then various decorative patterns and inlay work is often painted onto the lacquer and it ended up with a very high quality, glossy finish. Lacquer was very fashionable and expensive in 17th and 18th Century Europe and we saw examples of beautiful Japanese lacquer cabinets using intricate inlay work upstairs in the Wallace Collection.

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I liked the fact that Carmen’s talk was very visual and tactile. She handed round many examples of objects for us to look at such as a delicate hand-painted lacquer bowl, pieces of wood with marquetry patterns on them and a turtle shell. We also had a good look at the marquetry cabinets and lacquer objects in the collection itself that she had described to us downstairs during the talk.

I really enjoyed this talk and tour of the Wallace Collection. It took my mind off thinking about my cochlear implant operation for a while. I felt that I had learned something new about the materials and techniques used in the making of some of the objects and furniture held at the Wallace Collection. These events really help to boost my confidence and I meet new people. It makes it so much easier for me when the access is good and I have the total communication support to meet my needs. I’m already looking forward to the next lipspeakers’ event, which is a walking tour of the history of Regents’ Park with Lynne and Sara in May.

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4 thoughts on “Lacquer, Louis XIV and lipspeaking at the Wallace Collection

  1. Thanks for this fascinating blog post. I’ve been deaf all my life and have never gone to a deafer-friendlier guided tour. On the rare occasions I’ve done any tours I’ve tried and usually failed to keep up, I always say “I can’t walk/look and talk” cos I get very dizzy and tend to fall over…

    I will see if anything comes up which is SSEish/lipspeakyish in my area and try and go. My BSL is a lot like yours by the sound of it, something I’m learning but very much hard work and slow improvements.

  2. Richard, I had a CI two years ago following 25 years of increasing deafness. It has made a HUGE difference to my life and is almost as good as complete hearing again. It has opened so many doors for me and enabled me to attend events and group meetings which I would not have bothered with before. Also my sense of isolation has now gone and I even bought a radio to listen to! I have attended Lipreading classes for 27 years and learned BSL (I don’t meet very many BSL users though). Best of luck for the implant! Suzy D

    • It’s lovely to hear such positive feedback about your CI Suzy. I am really hoping it will be just as positive an outcome for me. Thanks for your great feedback and kind words. Richard

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