Interview with Dr Christina Bradstreet: Relaxing with Paintings at the National Gallery

relaxing, nourishing, emotional

Hi, can you please tell us a bit about you and the National Gallery’s involvement with the senses?

My name is Dr Christina Bradstreet and I work at The National Gallery organising adult learning courses and events. ‘Relax with Paintings’ are held regularly at the gallery. It’s a concept that has been designed and led by the Gallery's Head of Adult Learning, Jo Rhymer. It’s a format that has evolved out of a series called ‘Looking without Talking’, involving sustained silent looking, alone, in front of a painting, in a closed off room.

What first got you interested in how the senses can be used in art?

I wrote my art history PhD thesis on the role of scent in Victorian painting and I now have a book manuscript on this subject. I'm fascinated by how the nuances of meaning around the sense of smell change over time. Some of these meanings are lost to us today, but if we can reconnect with these meanings we can understand the paintings as they would have been originally.

Since working on ‘Relax with Paintings’ I have become interested in how imagining the senses within paintings can help people to immerse themselves deeply within the painting. Our special ‘Open Senses: Relax with Paintings’ event brings together both of these interests.

What can visitors expect with ‘Relax with Paintings’?

‘Relax with Paintings’ involves being seated in front of a painting for a slow-guided looking. Participants are invited to inhabit the world depicted and breathe its air and are gently guided in imagining the sensory experience of that space, from its sounds to its smells. For our Special ‘Open Senses: Relax with Painting’ I thought that it would be interesting to introduce soundscapes and a scent to explore whether these enhance or change people’s experience of looking at the painting.

All sorts of revelations occur in these sessions. People often find themselves powerfully affected emotionally and typically discover things they have never noticed before, even if they already know the painting well.

How would you describe ‘Relax with Paintings’ in three words?

Relaxing, nourishing, emotional!

I hear the special Open Senses version of Relax with Paintings has now sold out, how else can visitors keen to experience it get involved?

 Although the special ‘Open Senses: Relax with Paintings’ has sold out, there is a free taster from 2-3pm on Thursday 13th July. Please come and experience the sensory wonder of National gallery paintings then.

What else are you looking forward to seeing at the festival?

I'm looking forward to the hearing Professor David Howes of the University of Concordia speak at the Symposium conference. He has been a great source of inspiration to me!

How would you like to see senses evolve within a gallery setting?

We hope to make the skills that participants learn in ‘Relax with Paintings’ accessible beyond the walls of the gallery, so that even those who cannot get to art galleries, let alone The National Gallery, can learn to immerse themselves in pictures.

On a personal level I am starting to find ways to bring my own research into smell in nineteenth-century painting into experiential learning sessions, drawing on art and mindfulness techniques.

Sounds intriguing!

What about three words to describe how you feel about the festival?

Joyful, exuberant, stimulating!

Start your own conversation @OpenSensesUK #OpenSenses2017, this conversation initiated by Natasha Blok.