Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin

Thanks to everyone who commented on my post earlier this month asking for recommendations of novels about artists; I now have a whole list of titles and authors to investigate – and as promised, here are my thoughts on one of my recent reads, Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin. The Whistler the title refers to is, of course, the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and ‘Mrs Whistler’ is his model, muse and mistress, Maud Franklin. Although I was familiar with a few of his most famous paintings, such as Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (known as Whistler’s Mother), I knew nothing about his personal life or what sort of man he was, and I’m sorry to say that I hadn’t even heard of Maud.

The story of Maud’s relationship with Whistler is played out against a backdrop of some of the significant events that occurred in their lives between 1876 and 1880. The first part of the novel concentrates on the controversial Peacock Room, a decorative interior Whistler creates in the dining room of Frederick Richards Leyland’s London townhouse. Leyland is not at all happy when he sees what Whistler has done and a bitter feud follows. Later, the novel explores Whistler’s decision to sue the art critic John Ruskin for libel after he describes Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold as ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.

These two incidents form the basis of the plot and as I had no prior knowledge of any of this, I found that I was learning a lot about Whistler, his paintings and his life. But this is not so much a book about Whistler as a book about what it was like to know Whistler, to be near him and to share both his triumphs and his troubles. Maud Franklin must have known him as well as anyone – she was with him for around fifteen years and they had two children together (whom she had to see raised by foster parents), which makes her a logical choice of character to focus on. However, according to Plampin’s author’s note the real Maud had refused to talk to Whistler’s biographers who complained that ‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not’. This means Plampin has had to use his imagination to decide how Maud felt about Whistler and the other people in his life and how she may have thought, spoken and reacted.

Whistler, at least as seen through the fictional Maud’s eyes, does not come across as a very pleasant man. He’s self-absorbed, he treats Maud badly at times and often lacks awareness and judgement, which is particularly illustrated by his relationship with his friend Charles Augustus Howell, known as Owl. It is obvious to the reader that Owl cannot be trusted, but Whistler remains irritatingly loyal to him, not able to see what we and (eventually) Maud can see. I did have sympathy for Maud and wouldn’t have blamed her if she had left Whistler, but she stayed with him, I suppose, through a combination of love and a need for security. It’s a sad and often frustrating story, but told in a way that I found believable and convincing.

This is the first book I have read by Matthew Plampin, but I know he has written four others. If you’ve read any of them, maybe you can help me decide which one I should read next.

Historical Musings #61: Art through the ages

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction.

The winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced on Friday: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to read all of the shortlisted titles (I posted the shortlist back in March) but I hope to catch up with them eventually. The Narrow Land is about the American artists Edward and Jo Hopper and the summer they spent in Cape Cod in 1950, so I thought it would be interesting this month to look at other historical fiction novels which feature famous artists.

Most recently, I have read Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin, which explores the relationship between James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his model and muse, Maud Franklin. I’m currently working through a backlog of books I need to review, so you will be able to read my thoughts on that one eventually!

Thinking of others I’ve read, the first that comes to mind is Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. Set in the Netherlands in the 1660s, it tells the story of a maid in the household of the artist Johannes Vermeer. There’s also The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan, a fictional memoir of the 15th century artist, Hans Memling.

Novels about early female artists are particularly interesting as they have received so little attention throughout history. The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen is a book about the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, who spent many years painting portraits at the Spanish court, while Michelle Diener’s In A Treacherous Court features Susanna Horenbout, a Flemish artist who worked as an illuminator at the court of Henry VIII. And although she’s not the main focus of the novel, Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle is written partly from the perspective of Levina Teerlinc, another female artist working during the Tudor period and best known as a painter of miniatures.

I’m sure I must have read other books about artists but these are all I can think of at the moment (I have read plenty of books with fictional artists, but that would be a topic for a separate post), so now it’s your turn. Have you read any fiction about the lives and work of artists – of any nationality and from any time period? I would love some recommendations.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

The Doll Factory was one of the books on my 20 Books of Summer list that I never got round to reading, so I added it to my Autumn TBR list instead, hoping that would give me a push into picking it up sooner rather than later. Now that I’ve finally read it, I can say that it was worth waiting for – and it was actually a perfect October read.

The Doll Factory is set in Victorian London and follows three main characters whose stories become more and more closely entwined as the novel progresses. First, we meet Silas Reed, a lonely and eccentric man of thirty-eight whose ‘shop of curiosities’ houses stuffed animals, jars of specimens and cabinets of butterflies. He dreams of one day opening his own museum and hopes he will get his chance to make a name for himself at London’s upcoming Great Exhibition, but a chance encounter with Iris Whittle proves to be a distraction.

Iris – like her sister, Rose – works at Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium, painting faces on china dolls. What Iris really wants is to develop her skills as an artist and be taken seriously as a painter in her own right, so when she is approached by Louis Frost, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who asks her to model for him, she jumps at the opportunity…on the condition that Louis teaches her to paint. As she and Louis begin to spend time together, Iris discovers that she is falling in love – but she is being watched by Silas Reed, who has already decided that Iris is the woman he has been waiting for all his life.

Ten-year-old Albie has links with both Silas and Iris, providing dead animals for the curiosity shop and running errands for the doll factory. Albie is a bright and observant boy, but has grown up in poverty; he needs all the money he can get if he is ever going to help his sister out of prostitution and achieve his dream of buying a new set of teeth for himself. Albie can see that Silas is becoming dangerously obsessed with Iris, but will he be able to help her before it’s too late?

There are so many things to admire about The Doll Factory. I loved the Victorian setting, which in Elizabeth Macneal’s hands feels vivid and convincing, and I loved the way she blends her fictional characters and storylines together with real history. I enjoyed reading about the art world of the 1850s; although we do meet some of the real Pre-Raphaelites such as Rossetti and Millais, they are just minor characters while the focus is on Iris’s relationship with the fictional Louis Frost (and his wombat, Guinevere). As a woman trying to find her way into this world, Iris knows she faces huge challenges and obstacles but she knows she has talent as an artist and is determined to find a way to express herself.

Because of the Pre-Raphaelite element of the novel, I kept being reminded of Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato, another book in which a young woman becomes an artist’s model, although I think this is the stronger and better written of the two. It’s also quite a dark novel; the signs are there from the beginning with the descriptions of taxidermy, the collection of dead creatures and some of the macabre paintings Iris and her sister create for mourning parents in the doll factory, but it becomes much darker and more disturbing in the second half of the book as Silas becomes increasingly obsessed with possessing Iris. The ending wasn’t perfect – the climax of the story seemed to go on for far too long and was the one part of the book that, for me, felt contrived and over the top – but other than that, I really enjoyed The Doll Factory. It’s an impressive first novel and I will be hoping for more from Elizabeth Macneal.

Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato

It’s January 1853 and seventeen-year-old Annie Stride is standing on Waterloo Bridge looking down at the River Thames, contemplating suicide. Having grown up in the East End of London as part of a large and impoverished family, Annie has drifted into a life of prostitution. Her only friend, Mary Jane, drowned in the Thames the previous year and now, pregnant and homeless, Annie has decided she has no choice but to do the same. Just as she gets ready to jump from the bridge, she is rescued at the last minute by a handsome young man who introduces himself as Francis Maybrick Gill.

Francis is a talented Pre-Raphaelite artist who is planning a new series of paintings on the subject of the ‘Fallen Woman’ – and he wants Annie to be his model. And so Annie, who had been only moments away from death, finds herself living with Francis in his large and luxurious Gower Street home, posing for portraits of Eve, Rahab and Jezebel. As well as using Annie as his muse, Francis also takes steps to improve her mind, to correct her East End speech and to help her with her reading and writing. She has no idea why he is taking so much interest in her, but she is so grateful she doesn’t care – until late one night two visitors come to call and Annie begins to wonder whether Francis Maybrick Gill is really the man she thought he was.

Crimson and Bone, Marina Fiorato’s latest novel, is divided into three parts and everything I have described above happens in the first part alone. The action also moves away from London for a while to Florence and Venice; Fiorato, who is half-Venetian herself, always writes beautifully about Italy and we are given some lovely, vivid descriptions of the country. The author’s love of art also shines through, with lots of information on the Pre-Raphaelite approach to art, exhibitions at the Royal Academy, the symbolism in the paintings for which Annie models, and, through the character of a mysterious ‘rainbow man’, the origins of the paints and pigments Francis uses.

From the beginning, the reader is kept in the dark as to Francis’s motives. What are his true plans for Annie? Does he really just want to paint her or does he have some other reason for his sudden interest in her? And what is the significance of his obsession with white camellias? A series of diary entries written by Annie’s friend Mary Jane appear at the start of each chapter which eventually shed some light on things, while also raising more questions along the way. It’s obvious that something is not quite right with the whole situation, but we don’t know what or why and the tension builds slowly throughout the novel.

However, there are a few inaccuracies and anachronisms which do spoil the book somewhat – for example, Annie tries to improve her speech by listening to gramophone records (several decades before they would have been available) and is taken to the theatre to see performances of Pygmalion (not staged until 1913) and Adelaide Neilson in Measure for Measure (more than twenty years too early). Admittedly, not knowing anything about Adelaide Neilson, I wasn’t aware of the third one until someone else pointed it out in their review, but it makes me wonder what else I might have been too caught up in the story to notice.

And the fact that I became so caught up in the story and the atmosphere – and that I cared about what happened to Annie – meant that I did enjoy this novel overall, despite its flaws.

This is book 15/20 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Girl with a Pearl Earring Set in the 1660s, Girl with a Pearl Earring is narrated by Griet, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a tile painter who lives in Delft in the Netherlands. When her father is left unable to work after being blinded in an accident, he arranges for Griet to become a maid in the household of the artist Johannes Vermeer. Settling into her new job, Griet soon finds that coping with the cleaning, washing and dusting are the least of her worries; she also has to learn to deal with the hostility of Vermeer’s wife, the cruelty of one of their young daughters and the jealousy of the family’s other servant, Tanneke. And why is Tanneke jealous? Because Griet has been given the job of dusting Vermeer’s studio – a room rarely entered by the rest of the household. As the months go by, Griet watches painting after painting slowly take shape on Vermeer’s easel, but when she discovers that she herself is going to be the subject of his next portrait she senses that the fewer people who know about it the better…

Having read two of Tracy Chevalier’s other books, Remarkable Creatures and The Virgin Blue, it seemed silly that I still hadn’t read Girl with a Pearl Earring. Now that I’ve read it I can see why it’s her most famous novel. The thing I found most striking about the book is that the writing style actually feels like one of Vermeer’s paintings: clear and detailed and true to life. I am not an expert on Vermeer (or any other artist, to be honest) but this was something that I noticed almost immediately and was very impressed by. If you’re not familiar with Vermeer’s work I highly recommend searching for an image of each painting as it is referred to in the book – I can promise that it will add to your appreciation of the story and of Chevalier’s writing.

This book is set in a time and place that I know very little about and I loved the descriptions of 17th century Delft. Most of Griet’s time is devoted to carrying out her duties within the Vermeer home, but she also has plenty of opportunities to visit other areas of the town – buying meat for the family at the meat market, going to church, visiting her brother at the tile factory where he is an apprentice, or spending time with her parents and the young butcher they hope she will marry. I have never been to Delft but by the time I finished this book I felt I could almost picture what it would have been like to live and work there in the 1660s. The religious aspect of the book – the tensions between the town’s Catholic and Protestant people – was also handled well, showing us the distrust and suspicion that existed between the two communities.

Although there is a romantic element to the story it is quite understated. We are in no doubt as to how Griet feels about Vermeer – it’s noticeable that while she thinks of other people by name, Vermeer is always ‘he’ or ‘him’ and this instantly sets him apart from all the other characters in the story. However, Griet is very slow to admit to herself the significance he has in her life. The romantic aspect of the book is quiet and subtle and lacks drama and passion, as does the rest of the story, but I didn’t have a problem with that. I enjoyed following Griet’s everyday life – shopping at the market, chopping vegetables, dusting the studio – and I enjoyed learning about Vermeer’s work and painting techniques. I didn’t need drama.

But despite finding so much to like about this book, there were also some things that I didn’t like. With the exception of Griet, I thought most of the other characters felt more like stereotypes than fully developed characters. And while I did find the writing style very effective, there seemed to be a distance between the narrator and the reader; the books that I really love are the ones where I can share in the characters’ hopes and fears, where I can laugh with them and cry with them – but I didn’t feel any of that with this book. Still, of the three Chevalier novels I’ve now read, this is my favourite so far and I’m looking forward to trying some of her others.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson

Pictures at an Exhibition In 1942 the National Gallery in London launched its ‘Picture of the Month’ scheme. Each month one of the masterpieces that had been hidden away to protect them from bombing raids during the war would be brought out of storage and put on display. Daisy Milton, who is working in London as a typist, decides to go along every month to look at the paintings in the hope that it will give her something to look forward to and help her get through the days until the war is over. After each visit to the gallery she writes a letter to her friend Elizabeth in Canada, describing the painting and how it made her feel.

In the present day we meet Claire and her husband, Rob. When Rob’s grandmother, Elizabeth, dies she leaves him a box containing the letters she received from Daisy throughout the war. A recent tragedy has almost destroyed Claire and Rob’s marriage and Claire finds some comfort in reading Daisy’s letters and going to look at the paintings once a month just as Daisy did. As the months go by and Claire finds herself drawn into Daisy’s world she starts to see some parallels between Daisy’s life in the past and her own life in the present.

I enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition, but although I was interested in both the wartime and modern day storylines I did prefer the wartime one because I found Daisy a much more appealing character than Claire. For a long time Claire annoyed me because she seemed so self-absorbed and unwilling to move on with her life. I had more sympathy for Rob, who came across as a kind, considerate husband who was doing his best to make their marriage work and starting to run out of patience. As Claire’s story unfolded I started to warm to her a bit more, but I would still rather have spent more time with Daisy.

My favourite thing about this novel was having the opportunity to learn about the paintings that were displayed in the National Gallery during the war. Each chapter of the book begins with a QR code that you can scan with your phone (if you have the right sort of phone) and it will take you directly to the painting, or you can look them up online yourself later if you prefer – they are all easy to find on the National Gallery website. Some were very famous paintings that I was already familiar with, such as The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and The Hay Wain by John Constable, but there were others I knew nothing about. It was a fascinating experience to view each of these paintings first through Daisy’s eyes and Claire’s, then to be able to look at them myself and see things in them that I might not have thought of otherwise.

Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy of this book.

The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan

The Master of Bruges The Master of Bruges is presented as the fictional memoirs of the 15th century artist, Hans Memling. In December 1464, following the death of his master, the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, Hans travels to Bruges where he works at the Burgundian court, painting portraits of the nobility. As an artist, Memling is naturally a very observant, perceptive person and can offer the reader some insights into both the politics of the period and the lives and personalities of the people he meets in Bruges.

One night two strangers calling themselves ‘Ned and Dick Plant’ come to seek refuge at Memling’s house and Hans finds himself drawn into the drama and intrigues of the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between England’s House of York and House of Lancaster. And when several years later he is invited to England and renews his acquaintance with Ned and Dick, he becomes caught up in one of history’s greatest mysteries: the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons, the Princes in the Tower, who many people believe were murdered by their uncle, Richard III.

Before reading this book I had heard of Hans Memling but was not familiar with his work. The only one of his paintings I knew anything about was his triptych The Last Judgment, which featured a portrait of the banker Tommaso Portinari being weighed in St Michael’s scales, and was captured by the Danzig pirate Pauel Benecke as it was being shipped to Italy. The only reason I was aware of this anecdote was because it formed a minor plot point in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series (specifically, in To Lie with Lions and Caprice and Rondo). Luckily, many of Memling’s paintings can be seen online and I can guarantee that you’ll want to look at them as you read. There are also some short chapters interspersed throughout the novel in which Hans shares with us his views regarding artistic technique, perspective, focus, colours, and some of the tricks artists use to please their sitters, and I enjoyed reading these. As well as being fascinating to read, these chapters are relevant to the story as Memling’s descriptions of his techniques are either directly or indirectly linked to aspects of the plot.

I thought the first part of the novel, which details Hans’ early days as an artist, worked very well but not the second part, after he travels to England. I was interested in learning about Hans and his portraits and I was also interested in the Richard III story – it was the way the two were combined that didn’t work for me. Despite the Wars of the Roses being one of my areas of interest in historical fiction, I think I would have liked this book more if it had continued to tell the story of Memling’s life in Bruges rather than changing focus halfway through to concentrate on the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.

I don’t expect historical novelists to always stick rigidly to the facts, otherwise they would be writing non-fiction rather than fiction, but this particular book stretches credibility too much for me. I appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book, but I wished it had given more information on exactly which aspects of the story were based on fact and which were fictional. As far as I can tell there is no evidence to suggest that Hans Memling ever came to England or had any involvement with the Plantagenets. I also found it hard to believe Morgan’s theories regarding what happened to the two princes (especially a plan of Edward IV’s to have them declared illegitimate), though they were certainly very imaginative ideas. I was happy enough with the characterisation of Richard III, though – he is one of my favourite historical figures and I am definitely of the opinion that he has been unfairly treated by history, so it was good to see him portrayed in a more positive light in this book.

Because of the problems I’ve noted above, I can’t say that I loved The Master of Bruges, but I’m glad I kept reading to the end as there were some big surprises within the final chapters. I think as long as readers are aware that this book does not always give an entirely historically accurate account of the period and that it sometimes takes a more speculative approach to what might possibly have happened, it can be enjoyed as something refreshingly different and fun.