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Visual to Vocal at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

— August 2015

Associated media

Participants in the Dulwich Picture Gallery's 'Good TImes' project, of which 'Visual to Vocal' forms part

The DPG has found an innovative way to engage with the local community and help dementia sufferers

The Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London is exploring new ways to involve the surrounding community, and you won’t believe what they’ve come up with.

The DPG has all the usual programmes for the community: schoolchildren visit, artists give lectures and run workshops, there are classes and craft projects for retired persons. But how else could the Gallery make itself a valuable asset to Dulwich Village and the wider community? How about collecting some people in the early stages of dementia and their carers, no previous experience needed, and get them to write and perform an opera?

While dementia sufferers may still recall events in the past, their short-term memory is not so good. Visual to Vocal (supported by the City Bridge Trust, the City of London Corporation’s Charity, with collaboration from the English Touring Opera and Turtle Key Arts), likes to help its clients respond to the present. The group members look at certain pictures at the DPG and are encouraged to talk about the pictures: what are these people doing or thinking? What was the artist hoping to achieve?

Visual to Vocal launched its first project in 2012, and with each succeeding session it has explored the creative possibilities of the groups and have become more ambitious. The ideas and input come from all the participants.

So what exactly did they come up with this time? The plot that evolved over the Tuesday meetings hangs together as well as, or better than, a lot the stuff at Covent Garden. Under the deft guidance of writer/director Tim Yealland with music composer Rachel Leach and assistance from Ralph Clarkson (trombone) and Abigail Gostick (mezzo soprano), A fantastical opera inspired by the outlandish history of Dulwich Picture Gallery (that’s the title) took shape. The chorus sings about the pictures, but then it is time to close the Gallery for the night, and the song ‘It’s Time’ repeats ‘It’s time / it’s time /Lock the doors /Turn off the lights / Set the alarm /Turn on the sensors’ with hand movements illustrating each line. The song continues that the pictures will come to life, and then the busts of the original donors, Bourgeois and Desenfans, come to life and admire the pictures they bought all those years ago.

But wait! Some young burglars (played by four boys from the nearby Dulwich College: Jack Probert, Gabriel Rahman, Hal Howe, and Max Parfitt) now break into the Gallery, intent on stealing a valuable Rembrandt. (Don’t bother with that modern guy, Ravilious, in the special exhibition, they remind each other.) The alarm goes off, but they manage to switch it off when they finally remember the right number, 1811AD, the date of the founding of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. But before they can get very far with their thievish scheme, they are challenged by the figures in the paintings. The Chorus sings, ‘Turn away boys, we’re gonna make you see the light!’ Some of the paintings would rather like to be chosen, but on the whole the pictures take a dim view of the interlopers. They demand to know what the young intruders are doing and are answered with various unlikely makeshift excuses.

In a distinctly witty plot turn the burglars desperately claim to be plumbers from Poland – England now being famously awash, as it were, with Polish plumbers. It is then assumed that they must have come to take the collection of pictures to the King of Poland – as, indeed, the collection, amassed by Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noël Desenfans, was intended to be sent to Warsaw in to King Stanislaus Augustus, but the Third Partition had just happened in 1795 and there was no longer a Poland or King to receive the collection. The two art agents were left holding the very large bag that they tried to sell and eventually bequeathed to Dulwich College in 1811.

Devastated to learn that they are not going to Poland after all, the pictures mime postures of despair. They decide to write letters to other heads of state in the hope that someone else will buy the collection. Thereupon letters are composed, first to the British Prime Minister of the day, then to Napoleon (‘We hope you have now recovered from frostbite’). Increasingly desperate, the pictures then approach the Pope (a ‘buy one, get one free’ special offer!) and finally the Tsar of Russia (‘We solicit an early response in view of the interest already expressed in acquiring this magnificent collection.’)

But now Desenfans dies and is properly mourned by the chorus with a trumpet and trombone accompaniment. In a melodramatic departure from history, a fake will is discovered leaving all the pictures to a certain Mademoiselle Boudica, but she is quickly revealed to have tampered with the will and changed the name of Bourgeois to her own! A deal is done whereby the pictures are bequeathed to Dulwich College, thus avoiding involving the police. Advantages are considered: ‘The paintings will cover the cracks in the walls’, says one, ‘Eton has its playing fields, Dulwich needs its gallery’, says another.

Many hare-brained plans are proposed for the structure of the gallery (a Jacuzzi, a glass cube), but finally John Soane is commissioned to design a sensible brick building to house the pictures. The frightened burglars are reprimanded again by the pictures and presumably go straight after this.

The group worked diligently on the Tuesdays of two or three months to brainstorm their opera and then learn the words and gestures that they themselves had devised, helped out by some unobtrusive coaching and music composition. Creating an opera is thirsty work, and a high point of each session was a sociable cup of tea and some delicious goodies to go with it. The result was this amusing take on the history of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and it was obvious how much pleasure the participants took in their collaboration.

William, one of the carers, told me:

For me, it was a transformative, moving and liberating experience! We carers were relieved of our responsibility and had the chance to share an artistic experience with a loved one who could be a full partner in it. My wife has always been a better singer than I and she still is. Everyone was involved, thanks to the energy, commitment and empathy of Tim Yealland and his team. The Gallery hosts and professionals all created an atmosphere of loving acceptance, and the Dulwich College boys livened us all up.

I caught their 20-minute pop-up performance one Tuesday in June but had to miss the full performance on the following Sunday afternoon. ‘Are you going to put it on again?’ I asked a friend who was one of the carers. ‘Maybe take it on the road?’ I suggested hopefully.

She broke the news to me gently. ‘It’s not really about the audience,’ she said. ‘It’s not even about the performance. It’s about the process of getting there.’

No, of course. The performance is a by-product – an incidental element for them but charming entertainment for anyone lucky enough to see it.


Sarah Lawson
Freelance writer and translator

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