In my novel, the painting, The Improbability of Love, is a made-up work by a real artist Antoine Watteau. This dictated what kind of characters would inhabit the story – only certain types are involved with French Old Masters. If the painting had been by Monet or Sigmar Polke or Tracy Emin, then the people around it would have been quite different.
As I have worked in different aspects of the art world, writing about art and the art business did not feel too alien. However I was careful to choose an artist, Antoine Watteau, about whom we know next to nothing. Trying to write about Titian or Picasso would have been more challenging as much is known and written about their lives.
I became interested in Watteau's work when I saw a painting by Lucian Freud called 'Large Interior W11 (after Watteau)'. This painting was inspired by one of his conversation pieces. Until then I thought Watteau was a brilliant draftsman and a painter of courtly scenes but it wasn't until Freud substituted contemporary people in the same composition, I suddenly understood how much tension and intrigue there is in Watteau's work.
Later I found out more, and was fascinated by how a famous misanthrope could paint such apparently jolly and ephemeral images. Becoming more and more intrigued, like the girl in my novel, I went to the British Museum's prints and drawings room and was allowed to hold and study original drawings and sketches. Then I made Watteau pilgrimage to the Louvre, San Souci and other places that have his work.
More challenging than learning about Watteau or painting was understand the role of food and eating in 18th Century courtly life. I spent hours reading through books of recipes and even tried to cook in the style of Louis XIV – not at all successfully, I should add, but more on that in later posts!
Some fathers take their children fishing or to football matches; mine chose museums and art galleries. My Dad can’t build a car out of Lego and has little interest in board games but he does have an infectious, passionate interest in paintings and was pleased to find a willing disciple. As a child, the thrill was being with him; loving the paintings came later. My mother loved the outdoors, riding, skiing and walking. My father preferred indoor parks: the National Gallery became a weekend haunt as were visits to the Wallace, Waddesdon Manor and other National Trust houses; all viewed at breakneck speed (he doesn't do anything slowly). Something must have stuck in my imagination- and I now march my own children quickly through museums and galleries.
As a dog lover, I became obsessed with tracing Titian's pet dogs through his different paintings. This small animal, which looks a bit like a King Charles Spaniel appears in at least five pictures. here are a few.
See the art that inspired the novel on Pinterest here.
In the Second World War, my family had more works stolen by the Nazi party than any other – over 3,000 pieces. Many of these were recovered; some are still missing. Although most of the protagonists from that time are dead, a few are still alive. Only last year, a former Nazi officer died and some Rothschild pictures were discovered in his Swiss Bank Vault. My family had a particular interest in French Eighteenth Century art and owned many by Watteau, some yet to be recovered.
It’s the twists and turns in the lives of Old Master paintings – and their cast of equally interesting owners – that inspired The Improbability of Love.
In the early 1990’s, while working at the BBC, I made a film about art collectors called ‘Keeping up with the Medici’ and interviewed characters as diverse as Paul Mellon and Dennis Hopper as well as Wall Street titans, art critics and aristocrats.
In spite of their disparate backgrounds, they were all absolutely obsessed by art and linked by a common mania. To them the art world is a pseudo religion with high priests, demi gods, and rituals and rules. For a novelist there is an almost limitless supply of characters and situations. My cast of characters is inspired by many I have met; but based on no one in particular.
However the art world has something else: technically a painting is only worth the board or canvas it is painted on but the actual value of a work of art is set by the vicissitudes of human desire. Above all, this novel is a love story, an exploration of desire and loneliness and the wonder and improbability of love.
I am an art junkie – rarely happier than rootling around in an obscure museum or flicking through an artist’s monograph. I spent a lot of time in museums when I was young, a tradition I have continued with my own daughters. Perhaps looking at pictures became a habit and explains why so much of my adult life has centred on art; writing, making films and lecturing on it, as well as serving as a trustee to various museums.
Though I love paintings from all centuries and every style, my particular passion is Old Masters. These seem to have additional layers of beauty and intrigue made up of decades of admiring glances and turbulent histories. Wouldn't it be amazing, I have often thought, if they could tell us about the boudoirs, boardrooms and battlefields of their former owners, the conversations overheard and affairs witnessed? This became the premise of my novel: a painting that could talk.
Annie, the unfortunate heroine of the book, who buys the picture in a junkshop as a present for a friend, has no idea about its chequered past or the ruthless man will do anything to get it back. An act of generosity plunges her into mortal danger…