Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
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First Progress Reports

DIARY NOTES for 1980 plus extracts from letters

Friday May 16th : I discovered years ago that each eye registered a distinct colour cast – a white surface seen through the left eye had a warmer, pinkish tinge compared with my right eye, which registered the same white surface as a clean, clinical bluish-white. At night, looking through the bedroom window at the sodium-vapour street lights, my left eye registered a warm overall orange cast – my right a cooler light.
   This morning, sat at my desk, against the window with a strip of sunlight catching the papers and piled books, when I close my right eye, the illuminated areas have a warmth, a sensation of essential yellowness as its basis. Closing the left eye and viewing the scene with the fresh vision of the right, the old contrast has asserted itself and the illuminated areas appear white, an intense white with no local colour hidden in it.
   My left eye registers the sky as blue toned with a warm grey – my right as a pure, intense blue : the trees, yellowy green to my left eye, are a green to my right, a 'green' green that does not have any excess of yellow to it.

Thursday May 22nd : Went for check up: with test lens, can read down to bottom of chart! Have to return in 3 weeks time, when eye has healed and settled down, for a further check, and prescription for lens.

Tuesday May 27th : Got sick note for 4 weeks from doctor : see him in a fortnight, after visit to Mr. Gupta.

Wednesday May 28th : I've "seen" my OU notebook as bright red – which is how it looks to my new eye, but when I look at it with my left eye, I realise that what I've been seeing is actually a dirty brown which must have been colour corrected by my internal image enhancer to what I knew it to be.

Wednesday June 4th : Trip to London - visit to Dali Exhibition. London's hottest day...

Thursday June 5th : Broadcast of Philip's story The Coventry Box, Radio 4, 4.45pm. Letter from Diego Uribe, Buenos Aires, resuming contact.

9 June 1980

I've just had a cataract removed from my right eye, and in the period between the operation and having new spectacles prescribed I've discovered an unexpected 'spin-off' benefit.

The frequency of my visits to art galleries in recent years has declined as my eyesight has deteriorated because of cataract. I still have some useful vision in my left eye, but as it gradually misted over I found the general light level increasingly critical to my seeing or not seeing. Unfortunately current art conservation methods tend toward reducing gallery lighting levels to protect the pigments in precious paintings from fading, a practice that worked against me.

I suppose I really gave up the struggle early in 1978, after a particularly frustrating visit to the Dada & Surrealism Reviewed exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery. For my eyes, the lighting left much to be desired: I was unable to decipher the catalogue text, and the use of ceiling spotlights cast shadows in unwanted places, often on to the pictures themselves, as well as creating pools of darkness that made it impossible to read the descriptive cards mounted alongside the paintings.

There were several displays of drawings and documents mounted behind glass about waist-height, at a 45 degree angle. The convenience of this arrangement was negated by the overhead spotlights; when I leaned over to look my head cast an impenetrable shadow... And there was one of these units that proved unexpectedly to be protected by a vertical sheet of glass, a fact I did not realise until I tried to bend over the exhibits for a close look – with a painful contact.

Logically, I suppose a gallery curator does not expect to have to cater for the partially sighted. I took the hint, accepted the inevitable, and gave up. Though there is one exception to the encroaching gloom in major galleries – the National Gallery still has light airy rooms and a visit still holds rewards.

So much for the preamble: now for the 'spin-off' benefit I mentioned.

I occasionally use a large rectangular magnifying glass to read small print or to resolve some detail that eludes normal viewing. By a happy accident while revelling in my newly restored vision I found that on looking through the glass with my right eye, a picture on the wall, some six feet away, appeared in clear larger-than-life detail, and right way up. This chance vision was so exciting that I walked round examining all my paintings through the glass, seeing details that had been obscured for years.

The Rout of San Romano, UccelloThe obvious place to exercise this newly-found vision was the National Gallery. My immediate call was to the room dominated by a painting I have long admired: Uccello's Rout of San Romano, a bold colourful Renaissance work by one of the pioneer painters of perspective. This large work occupies most of one wall and faces a conveniently-placed row of chairs from which it may be viewed in comfort. I sat down and whipped out my magnifying glass, closed my left eye, and got things into focus. It was so marvellous a sight that I wished the surgeon and all the staff who made the miracle of my restored vision possible could have been there to share the intense pleasure – the whole wonderful picture floated before me and how long I spent there, luxuriating in all the never-before-seen detail, I don't know. I just lost myself in the experience.

When I relaxed and returned to normal, donning my ordinary glasses (and the use of my fading left eye), I realised that the attendant had left his seat at the room entrance and was regarding me quizzically from one side of the room. He seemed convinced I was doing some unorthodox forbidden photography, and still looked baffled despite my explanations...

After that, there was no holding back. Next stop was the Hayward Gallery, where I was able to sit in the centre of most rooms and survey the large canvases on the walls through my glass in pleasing detail. Though there was one hazard here: they are in the habit of displaying sculptures on the floor, relying on people with normal vision to take due avoiding action. Obviously, they had not allowed for idiots like me wandering around, with one eye screwed shut and the other peering out at the world through a large magnifying glass...

I finished up the day at the Salvador Dali exhibition at the Tate Gallery. If you hear any reports of a quaint surrealist character seen wandering around squinting at the exhibits through a magnifying glass while tripping over the shin-high rope barriers round the more valuable exhibits, you'll know who it was.


Wednesday June 11th : Immediately after the operation, when the eye had begun to heal and the mists cleared, it seemed miraculous that I could see again ... Things were still blurred in the centre of vision, but for the next few days, I kept holding my hand in front of my face to see if I could count my finger ... and eventually did. Over the past couple of weeks, things have improved steadily, and from an astimatic, facetted view (late Cezanne style), I've reached a slightly blurred, multiple-image clarity. The thing that really takes my breath away is how light and bright everything is, how intense and glowing colours are. I'd forgotten after the years of accommodating to the increasing gloom. Now that I can compare the vision in both eyes, I realise how much light & colour the cataract in my left eye cuts off.

Thursday June 12th : Visit to Mr Gupta: given prescription for reading & distance lenses for my left eye: now have a 'balancer' over other (right) eye to obscure my fading vision and to stop discrepant images fighting.

Monday June 23rd : Got new specs: Can now see to read – despite slight problems – in bad light even... But there are problems : there should be a training course.

Wednesday June 25th : Steve Draper [Dover Books] wrote to say he's got a job in San Diego and is returning to US in October; will call Aug/Sep to discuss book.

25 June 1980

Another milestone has been passed and I'm now fitted out with new specs so I can get the benefit of New Vision. The specialist warned me that I might find some difficulty in judging distances when first I wore them: he was dead right:

All the information my brain has been storing up for the past sixty years is now suddenly at variance with the visual data coming in from the New Vision. I reach out for the sauce bottle and find my extra-large hand closes on the space immediately in front of the bottle. I walk through doorways and the doorposts lag unpredictably and buffet me when I think I'm through. I go upstairs and my foot anticipates the first step but doesn't quite make it; I go downstairs and unaccountably an extra step materialises at the bottom.

But I'm persevering...

There are lots of advantages: outside, the light and clarity of vision is overwhelming after the years of clouded vision as cataracts got worse. It's only now that I realise what a lot I've been missing – even on a dull day everywhere looks sunny now. I hope that feeling doesn't wear off!

When the rain stops, I nip out for trial runs up & down the avenue. Well, perhaps not so much runs as 'tentative ambles'. By dint of will-power I'm attempting to slow down my usual walking pace so that I can negotiate kerbs, puddles, holes and protruding paving stones without disaster, and cut down the number of lamp standards, posts and other obstructions I tend to barge into. (When I venture into the big city, I might fall back on my old specs and dimming eye & associated reflexes to cope with it all, until I've gained a little more confidence with the New Vision:).

I was disappointed wi.th results when first I tried to read: I was more aware of all the defects of my eye which seemed to distort a page of type until it was a struggle to settle on a particular line and follow it through. But my fading vision has given me so many 'bad habits' – like holding notes 3" away from my eye to make them legible – that I've a whole process of re-learning to do.

Today, I seem to have made fairly rapid progress: I've hit on the right distances at which I can focus, and am gradually training myself to see what I want to see – the type – rather than be aware of the eye imperfections. My reading speed has shot up prodigiously and I'm no longer dependent on the level of illumination: I can once again see print with clarity in dull light and artificial light. Marvellous. When I've mastered my reading, I'll attempt to do some drawing ... the crucial test.

I have not quite coordinated my handwriting – it still finishes up with an exaggerated italic slope and has a tendency to drift high right. Practice, practice... That's why this is being typed. Although initially I had problems in hitting the keys squarely; my fingers finished up in the spaces between the keys, though I adjusted fairly rapidly.

Saturday September 13th : Completed outline drawing for 30" x 30" canvas 'Adventure Playground'

Monday October 6th : Went to lunchtime talk by Jane Farrington at Wyndham Lewis retrospective at City Gallery.

Saturday October 18th : Wyndham Lewis Seminar at Central Library.

Friday November 14th : Got permission off Jane Farrington to take photos at WL exhibition, but not allowed to use flash. ■

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