I like my literature and, as you may have guessed from my nom de plume, I ‘m partial to a bit of art history as well. The attraction to this event spotlighting two novels drawing inspiration from the world of art was, therefore, instantaneous. Of course, I had to read both books before the event, amd what a fantastic experience that was. Well done, Aye Write, for leading me down this particular path.
Philip Miller’s debut novel, The Blue Horse charts George Newhouse’s quest to find a painting by a minor Dutch master, Pieter van Doelenstraat. Noone is sure if the painting really exists – its existence has been deduced from a throwaway comment made by Doelenstraat’s contemporary, Rembrandt van Rijn – but Newhouse is on a mission to find it. The novel starts with Newhouse taking up his new job as curator at the Public Gallery in Edinburgh – a gallery as troubled as its curator. How can a small gallery compete with the National Galleries of the city. How will the new guy focus on the task to hand when he is a emotional wreck, grieving still for his beloved late wife?
Miller is an arts correspondent – so he knows the good, the bad and the downright murky of the arts world. He was at pains to emphasise that no character is based on his real life acquaintanceship, although some of the events might be. The public gallery’s crisis is precipitated when one of the collections is withdrawn to be displayed in richer galleries in the Middle East. (An echo of what happened when the Duke of Sutherland decided to sell 22 paintings, then displayed in the National Gallery of Scotland.) Strange as it may seem, it would also be quite possible to stage an exhibition of Renaissance paintings graphically depicting Christ’s most personal part (See footnote.)
Stranger still is Miller’s imagination – actually distinctly weird, gothic and surreal. (Terrifying, said Peggy Hughes, the Ayewrite chair. Alienating, thought I. The key to the novel, said the author. What do I know?, thought I.) The licence for these weird images, memories, fantasies, nightmares, realities – you can’t actually be sure – is George Newhouses’s disturbed mind which he feeds with too much alcohol and too many pills. The result is a pervading sense of menace. Newhouse (and others) might be looking for a painting, but it appears that the painting is also looking for them!
Miller admitted that this isn’t his first novel. The first was rejected by publishers. Too boring, they said. Well, That’s not an accusation they can level here. Grief-stricken George Newhouse is an anti-hero you can feel for despite his not inconsiderable flaws. The gothic menace hauents me still and the denouement involving a (real) underwater nightclub, Russian oligarchs, black yachts, The Blue Horse and Venice in flames left me wondering how on earth we got there? That’s quite some some ride from Edinburgh.
Let Venice be a seque. It was one of Turner’s oils of Venice that switched me onto him in a huge way. Hence the itch to read Plampin’s Will & Tom, which tells of a week in the lives of painters J M W Turner (who needs no explanation) and Tom Girtin (now largely forgotten).
If George Newhouse is on a mission to find a lost painting, Matthew Plampin is on a mission to rehabilitate Tom Girtin, a talented painter who died at the age of 27, of whom Turner said “Had Girtin lived, I would have starved.”
The week in question takes place in 1797 at Harewood House in Yorkshire, when both painters were commissioned by Edward Viscount Lascelles (known as Beau) to paint his magnificent home. Whether they were both there at the same time is not certain – the evidence is flimsy and based on Turner’s including two minute figures in one of his paintings of the estate. This one perhaps?
EDIT: No it’s not that one – it’s this one and the figures are camoflagued against the hill.
Plampin feels that the figures are too considered a detail to have no meaning. He argues that Turner is making a rather grumpy point about how the two of them conducted themselves on the estate. Grumpy? Turner? Indeed so even as a young man of 22. An artist from humble background (Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, his father was a barber, his mother a lunatic) making his way on pure merit, earnest, no social airs or graces and no idea of how to conduct or articulate himself among the aristocracy. Contrast this with Tom Girtin, also of humble background, but willing to adapt, to change his accent, be charming and to engage with his aristocratic benefactors. That’s why he is given a room above stairs while Will (if I may be so free) is billeted with the servants. Tom is also a bit of a libertine, not hard-working. The one Turner has painted lying on his back …
He does a fair bit of that in the novel as well. He begins an affair with Mary Ann, Beau’s disgraced younger sister. All Will wants to do is complete his commission and continue with his Northern tour but this complication makes him stay. He recognises the danger but wants to ensure his friend escapes without a scandal, career intact. Therein lies a delicious irony because something underhand is at work, and the longer Will stays, the deeper the hole he digs for himself.
Plampin wasn’t interested in portraying Turner as the institution he became in latter life. My Will is a strange little man having an incredibly odd week, he said. He is also naive and vulnerable, and there’s the still-room maid, Mrs Lamb, who knows how to play those vulnerabilities to maximum effect. Will is warned multiple times that she is no friend of his, but he will not listen. Vulnerable and obstinate. His own worst enemy.
Did any of this happen? Does it matter? Plampin feels no responsibility to the historical record. My job as an historical novelist is to explore the realms of the possible and the probable, he said. As a reader, I felt uncomfortable – these shenanigans were highly unlikely but then, suddenly I was worried for Tom, worried for Will and I was loving the meticulous setup. The layers of wash and colour. The fine brushstrokes had pulled me in. About 2/3rds of the way through, I began to fret about reaching the end!
Rich seams of historically accurate detail highlighting the attitudes of the aristocracy to their benefactees, the origins of the Lascelles’ wealth, the complex relationship between Girtin and Turner, their diverging paths, and a skillful exposition regarding the technicalities of C18th watercolouring more than balance the rather fanciful, though appropriately romantic plot.
The role that money and class plays in the fine arts is a theme shared with The Blue Horse. There is also a lost artwork – Girtin’s Eidometropolis which perished in a fire in the C19th. Fortunately his watercolours survive and, right now, Harewood House is exhibiting the paintings that both artists produced for Beau Lascelles. If I lived closer, I’d visit in a heartbeat.
(Footnote: I’m not being coy, I just don’t want a particular search term leading to my part of the blogosphere.)