Tate Britain Audio-Described Tour: ‘Femme Fatale’


The Tate Britain run an ongoing series of free BSL-interpreted and audio-described tours of work in their collections. DAO sent Stephen Portlock to review an audio-described talk on Monday 19th January by Auntie Maureen, exploring artworks in the collection in terms of the archetype of the ‘Femme Fatale’.

a stylish portrait painting of a woman in 1930s clothes

Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Oil on canvas by Gerald Brockhurst. Image © Richard Woodward

I was slightly bemused soon after turning up for the audio-described talk to find our hostess Auntie Maureen disappearing to the littlest room. She returned a moment later adorned in a black crepe dress with silver trimmings and wearing a brown hat tilted at a severe angle.

Auntie Maureen takes an interest in all things vintage, historical, feminist and bohemian and works as a vintage DJ, describing hip-hop as a children’s jumping game. She explained the exclusively heterosexual concept of the ‘Femme Fatale’ making allusions to poetry, Eve, Greek mythology and the deeply conservative morality of Film Noir. All this was fascinating and I would have been quite happy to hear an hour long talk on that subject alone, but this was the preliminary context for describing three paintings.

In the first, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s fin-de-siècle Aurelia in which the painter used his mistress Fanny Cornforth as a model, her snaking hair, which she plaits while seated in her bedchamber could point to her as a ‘Femme Fatale’.

In John Singer Sargeant’s 1884 Study of Mme Gautreau, what would have horrified audiences at the time was the fact that her dress was held up by only one very flimsy strap.

For Auntie Maureen, the allure of the 1930s lay in the fact that it represented a time when women were experimenting with free love and different kinds of family set-ups before the Second World War and its aftermath heralded a return to strait-laced respectability. In Gerald Brockhurst’s 1931 Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, there is nothing outrageous about the actual content. Rather Margaret’s reputation preceded her as a very promiscuous woman with numerous lovers.

All this was interesting but hard to follow, partly because of the external background noise. There was simply too much information imparted. In Auntie Maureen’s commentary on Aurelia, her description of the image unexpectedly digressed into the painting techniques used.

Confusion was also occasionally caused by allusions to ‘right’ and ‘left’ since it was not immediately clear whether that alluded to the vantage point of the model being painted or to that of us, the viewers. At the end of the session I was really not much clearer about the actual content of the paintings than at the outset.

In fairness this was Auntie Maureen’s first experience of audio-describing paintings for blind visitors, and she was only too happy to learn on the go. Furthermore, we were told that amplifiers should be set up for the next tour.

Overall I was more interested in her explanations of the theme of the femme fatale than I was in the actual paintings, but I can still see myself returning to Tate Britain for similar events.

Please click on this link to visit the Tate website for information about ongoing access talks in the galleries in London, Liverpool and St. Ives