Oliver Caswell and Laura Bridgman

W. Sharp after Alvan Fisher, Oliver Caswell and Laura Bridgman, lithograph (1844). Dimensions 353 x 297mm

Wellcome Library no 16376i.

W. Sharp after A. Fisher, Oliver Caswell and Laura Bridgman, lithograph (1844).

Credit: Wellcome Library

This print portrays Laura Bridgman (1829-89), a famous student of The Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind in Boston, helping another student Oliver Caswell read a page of embossed literature; their intertwined fingers recall the finger alphabet taught there. Charles Dickens helped make Laura a cause célèbre in mid-Victorian society by publishing an account of his meeting her in American Notes for General Circulation (1842). A sheet of writing rests on the desk and both students’ names are inscribed on the lithograph: Perkins students were taught to write visible print and Laura kept an extensive journal this way.

The American landscape and genre painter Alvan Fisher painted his life-size portrait of Laura Bridgman and Oliver Caswell, now in the collection of the Perkins School for the Blind, in the early 1840s. Born in Needham, Massachusetts, Fisher travelled across America and Europe before settling in Massachusetts in the  late 1820s, where he accepted portrait commissions to supplement his income and support his landscape practice. Alvan was brother to Dr John Dix Fisher, founder of the Perkins Institution. Both brothers had visited Paris in 1825, Alvan as part of a tour of Europe including England, Switzerland and Italy. John Dix Fisher (a specialist in smallpox) studied medicine and also spent time observing the educational practices of the Institute for Blind Youth established by Valentin Haüy, including methods of instructing students using embossed teaching materials. This inspired John Dix Fisher to set up a similar institution in his home state of Massachusetts, in Boston. The New England Asylum for the Blind (it was later renamed Perkins after an early benefactor) was incorporated in 1829 and opened in 1832, following the recruitment of Dr Samuel Gridley Howe to the role of director: Howe also visited European institutions for the blind in 1831 as part of his preparations.


The Perkins School for the Blind Archives

Object Description:

This lithograph in black and white tones shows two young blind people: on the left Oliver Caswell (a boy of about 14) and standing next to him on the right Laura Bridgman (about 16 years old). They are positioned in an interior: behind Laura to the right is an open window, with tree leaves just visible behind the window frame, and what appears to be the sea’s horizon beyond. In front of Laura to the right is a desk, on which rests a large book and a sheet of paper, which has been partly inscribed: a ruler rests below the last line of writing. Both Oliver and Laura are facing forward, but both lean in slightly towards each other. Oliver wears a long sleeved coat which stops at a white collar and black cravat. His eyes are closed. Laura wears a dark, long-sleeved dress, over which a large white collar can be seen. Her face is turned towards Oliver, and her eyes are covered by dark glasses. Laura and Oliver hold a book, Laura’s left hand is laid over Oliver’s left, which is positioned on the book, his index finger stretched out to touch the paper.  The lithograph is inscribed with Oliver Caswell and Laura Bridgman’s signatures, made in square handwriting in Roman script. The print is inscribed in pencil at the bottom right hand side: ‘Lady Ingliss, with Mrs Howe’s [wife of the Perkins director, Samuel Gridley Howe] kind regards’.

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