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Friday, March 19, 2010

Mystery Portraits!

This is one of the most imaginative and fascinating ideas I've heard for a while. The National Portrait Gallery in London and the National Trust's Montacute House are jointly mounting a new display of thirteen portraits where the identity of the sitter is lost, mistaken or uncertain. All the pictures date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and are probably of courtiers, merchants, musicians and others who wished to be immortalised through art but whose identity is now forgotten.

Inspired by the mystery portraits, authors including Tracy Chevalier, Minette Waters, Terry Pratchett and Joanna Trollope have written short stories of what the lives of these sitters might have been like and have created fictional biographies and character sketches. These draw on the details in the paintings; the costumes, the background, the pets, decorations, furniture etc etc to create a richer picture. Minette Walters has written a poignant letter from the perspective of the wife of a man shown in a portrait, which brims with despair at her husband's extravagance. Sarah Singleton has written about the adventures of a spice merchant and amateur musician struggling to make his way in the world despite his illegitimate status. Full details of the exhibition and the intriguing ideas behind the stories are here. I can't wait to check it out and I don't mind admitting that I wish I'd been invited to take part! But since I wasn't, I plan a little mystery portrait event of my own at Ashdown House. Writing or re-writing the stories of the people in our fabulous Ashdown portrait collection would be a lot of fun!

7 comments:

Virginia C said...

How delicious! I have often stared at unknown portrait subjects and imagined their life and loves : ) The more realistic and captivating the painting, the more vivid the imaginings!

Alison said...

I love this idea! It would be great to do it for the rogues gallery at the castle...

Nicola Cornick said...

Alison, I think the NT should roll it out to all properties like ours with interesting portrait collections. It's a fantastic idea.

Virginia, like you I particularly love the idea of using all the vivid details in the painting to flesh out the background story. We could all have a lot of fun with that!

NinaP said...

Oh, what fun! Since I was a child, I've used old pictures (and portraits) to excite story. I've also been known do this in church graveyards a time or two. Morbid I know, but loss and pain often sit at the beginning of a HEA.

Jan Jones said...

I used to write short stories to go with photos that my ed wanted in her magazine - but I'm now trying to imagine what sort of portrait could inspire Sir Terry Pratchett to write an amusing tale about an explorer who presented Elizabeth I with a skunk!

Nicola Cornick said...

Gosh, that's interesting, Nina. I think all manner of things can fire our imaginations, even tombstones! We have a little abandoned graveyard down the lane from where we live and I wrote one of those characters into a story a long time ago.

Nicola Cornick said...

That's one story I would LOVE to read, Jan! I'm planning on going to the exhibition and I heard there was a book of the stories to go with it so I'll be lookingo ut for that.