The Bristol School
Samuel Johnson wrote, “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”
Of course, there are many trustworthy sites. For example, in my line of work, which is the eighteenth century, the Old Bailey Proceedings On Line is a fantastic resource. Even so, I think it’s a shame to rely too much on the internet. For one thing, if you spend all your time sitting at your desk peering at a screen, you’re not having as much fun as you could be. When I’m researching I like to get out and about to look at historic buildings, battlefields and museums. These are obvious resources if you’re researching history, but there’s another which I value as much as any of these: the art gallery.
For me, an afternoon spent in a gallery looking at eighteenth-century art is not only enjoyable (especially if there’s a good café!), it’s also informative. Portraits tell me how people dressed or wore their hair, and the best of them convey something of character too. I find some of Thomas Lawrence’s work so powerful that it can feel as if the subject is standing in the room with me. Land and city scapes tell me what places used to look like. Interiors tell me how rooms were furnished – there’s a wealth of detail in Hogarth’s conversation pieces such as The Strode Family (1738).
It’s not that I think paintings or drawings are necessarily literal representations of reality. Like a piece of writing, they have their own perspective, they reflect the artist’s point of view and measure of what is and isn’t worthy of note. Artists often change things in order to enhance a composition – move a tree or divert a stream, for example. But even cartoons and satirical prints, where everything is wildly exaggerated, supply a wealth of detail. While using the objects surrounding the Prince Regent to reinforce his satire, James Gillray’s A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion shows all sorts of detail: table setting, chamber pot, lighting, smoking chimneys.
But paintings do more than supply me with bits of information. They inspire me to write. That may seem odd. After all, aren’t artists and writers doing very different things? Perhaps not. One reason I find the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti so fascinating is the way he combined his painting and poetry, using his writing to comment on and expand his paintings. For The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, two sonnets he wrote to accompany his painting were attached to the frame when it was exhibited.
The idea that visual art can inspire written work is not new. The National Gallery has been promoting the use of paintings as stimuli for creative writing since they launched their Articulate Project in 2003 . Many English literature and creative writing teachers incorporate looking at a painting and writing about it into their lessons. This is something I don’t think writers need to leave behind when they leave school!
When I was writing To The Fair Land I looked at paintings by marine artist Nicholas Pocock of Bristol, William Hodges who travelled with Captain Cook, portraitist Thomas Lawrence and many others. One of the paintings I saw caught my imagination so much I wrote about it in To The Fair Land.
The painting was Broad Quay, Bristol, British School, c 1760 Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
And this is how it crept into my writing.
Ben walked along the Quay, ignoring the small dog yapping at his heels. In the middle of the busy thoroughfare two children played seesaw on a plank of wood dangerously balanced across a barrel. Tall masts rose above Ben’s head, birds wheeled in the blue sky and ropes flapped against slimy steps. They looked like nothing now, those sailless ships with their battered paintwork, drooping in the mud of Bristol harbour. But any one of them could carry him a hundred miles, a thousand miles, thousands of miles – to Madeira, the Canary Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, India, China, Batavia... to a fair land.
The children on the see saw, the dog, the masts are all in that painting, and that’s how I managed to “see” them.
It’s fortunate for me that so much of the art of the eighteenth century has survived, but even for earlier eras there may well be resources that repay close study. Trajan’s column, for example, is a mine of information about the first century Roman Army (you don’t need to go to Paris to see it – there’s a cast of it in the Victoria and Albert Museum). Look closely at friezes, frescoes and funerary monuments and you might be surprised at how much you can glean from them. The closer we come to our own era, the more visual material is available: photographs, postcards and film (with sound too!). I’d caution against thinking these are any more accurate than paintings by Hogarth or Lawrence, though. The cliché the camera doesn’t lie is a lie!
Samuel Johnson was right. The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading, and these days a lot of our reading is done at our computers. In fact, as the links I’ve included in this article show, you can also look at paintings on your screen as well. There’s no denying that this is useful, especially for paintings in galleries you can’t get to. Of particular value here is the Your Paintings database which shows the entire UK collection of oil paintings on line.
But it doesn’t matter how good an image is, there’s nothing like seeing the real thing, and Your Paintings also tells you where you can go to see the paintings it lists. I’m always very excited when I first set eyes on a work I only know from the internet or books. There it is in its true colours, with all its detail, proportions and texture restored. And when I’ve finished studying it and jotted down a few notes, there’s always the café afterwards…
This marks the first stop on the To the Fair Land tour; click to see the rest of the schedule.
About the book: To the Fair Land is a thrilling eighteenth-century mystery about the search for a missing author, a map of a land that should not exist and a vicious killer.
In 1789 struggling writer Ben Dearlove rescues a woman from a furious Covent Garden mob. The woman is ill and in her delirium cries out the name “Miranda”. Weeks later an anonymous novel about the voyage of the Miranda to the fabled Great Southern Continent causes a sensation. Ben decides to find the author everyone is talking about. He is sure the woman can help him – but she has disappeared.
It is soon clear that Ben is involved in something more dangerous than the search for a reclusive writer. Who is the woman and what is she running from? Who is following Ben? And what is the Admiralty trying to hide? Before he can discover the shocking truth Ben has to get out of prison, catch a thief, and bring a murderer to justice.
Lucienne Boyce was brought up in the Midlands and now lives in Bristol with her husband and hundreds of books. With its exciting maritime heritage, Bristol is the setting for many of her stories. When she is not writing she is happiest walking around the historic city and the surrounding countryside gathering ideas and inspiration. Find out more at lucienneboyce.com. To the Fair Land was published by SilverWood Books (UK) in paperback and ebook in 2012.
Thanks to the author, we have one copy of To the Fair Land up for grabs to a lucky winner. Fill out the form below for a chance to win. Deadline for entries is Monday 9/30.
This giveaway is now closed.