Twilight Times Feature
"Paintings as Inspiration"
by Robina Williams
Thoughts of the Past
featured in Jerome and the Seraph
Sir John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (British Painter, 1829-1908).
Paintings in Jerome and the Seraph:
Jerome and the Seraph owes much to painting. Not that I am an artist -- I have no talent at all for painting and drawing (and think that many school art lessons are wasted and would be better spent teaching history of art) but I love to look at paintings. I wrote an M.Phil. thesis tracing the influence of nineteenth-century painting on the writings of the English Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins. Collins had been a painter himself in his early days and was a friend and supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites. The more I researched the painting links in Wilkie Collins' books and articles the more interested in art I became. I particularly appreciated the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, which were so bright and fresh and topical. I liked their crisp, sharp, almost jewel-like, colours and their realistic detail, and I admired the way they tackled contemporary themes and problems.
I decided to try to write a novel that would feature some paintings. I wondered how I could bring paintings into a plot. I thought about looking at a portrait that looked back at you. I thought about how some famous artists had spent time painting theatre scenery or coachwork or inn signs before they became famous. I thought about how certain people happen to resemble figures in paintings or sculptures. I thought about paintings I just enjoy looking at. The paintings that I enjoy looking at show recognisable figures or scenes. I have no eye for abstract paintings and no comprehension of them.
I like the sandy-haired girl in Sir John Roddam Spencer Stanhope's 1859 painting "Thoughts of the Past." This beautiful painting, full of symbolism, shows a young woman, dressed in blue and with long red hair, standing wistfully by a window through which can be seen the sails and masts of ships in dock. She is a fallen woman who seems to be bitterly regretting her fall. Her lovely face is full of sadness. Rossetti touched on a similar theme in his "Found" and Holman Hunt famously depicted "The Awakening Conscience."
The most moving of these lost girls is Spencer Stanhope's with her delicate vulnerability and I decided to use her image in Jerome and the Seraph. Clare Kesteven, when young, had resembled the girl in the painting and her beauty and fragility had charmed the susceptible Fidelis. One day he had bought a postcard illustration of the painting and had given it to her. When she meets him again many years later she gives the postcard back to him, scribbling a personal message on the back. He loses it and it is found by one of his friars -- Valentine, an artist, who recognises it immediately. Clare has her daughter, Emily, with her now, and it is Emily who now bears the resemblance to the girl in the painting. The real-life "girl in the painting" threatens ruin for Fidelis, whereas the painting itself shows a ruined girl.
I also brought into the book another Pre-Raphaelite painting: "Our English Coasts" by William Holman Hunt. This picture is one of Valentine's favourites. Valentine had trained as an artist before joining the Order. He is not a highly original painter. He is a skilled copyist. He paints "after" famous artists, painting in their style and sometimes putting images created by them into paintings of his own. Thus he has produced a couple of attractive hanging signs for local inns, one featuring a rearing white horse based on Jacques-Louis David's dramatic representation of Napoleon's horse, Marengo, and the other showing a picturesque old water mill much like Parham's Mill as painted by John Constable. Sometimes figures from a painting -- or scenes or titles -- suggest to him a theme for a sermon.
Such is the case with "Our English Coasts." The painting was later called "Strayed Sheep," and Valentine, looking at an illustration of it one afternoon and admiring the skill with which Holman Hunt depicted the dappling effect of sunlight on grass and fleece, decides that sheep that have strayed would make an excellent topic for his Sunday sermon. Valentine sees no reason to let a good idea go to waste and happily incorporates into his paintings features from other artists' work. His use of their ideas is not plagiarism but tribute: it is a mark of his esteem for them.
The two central characters of the novel are taken from a painting, one from centuries earlier. Or rather, they were helped into being by a painting: Albrecht Dürer's 1495 painting "St Jerome in the Wilderness." Dürer depicted St Jerome praying in the desert with his pet lion lying protectively at his side. While I was researching the issue of "Perception" for my M.Phil. thesis I became greatly interested in Schrödinger's Cat, which was potentially dead and potentially alive. Thinking cats, I thought little cats and big cats: Schrödinger's Cat and St Jerome's pet lion. Might the quantum cat metamorphose? I decided that he might, and that he might, furthermore, be a divine messenger in feline form. So the seraph becomes the lion who protects the saint and later the cat who protects the friar -- though the friar had naively thought that he was looking after the cat.
Dürer's painting brings out the contrast between the saint and the lion, between the man's vulnerability and the lion's strength and reassuring presence. Indeed the lion is seen to be actively guarding the saint: his golden eyes glittering, he gazes intently into the desert, looking for any threat of danger, while the saint kneels and prays, his eyes fixed on the heavens. The lion is even frowning with concentration. I put both the saint and the lion into my story, changing the doctor of the church into a humble friar and not-very-good cook and turning the tawny lion into a small ginger tomcat -- a quantum tomcat. Thus I pay my tribute to Albrecht Dürer and Erwin Schrödinger.
On English Coasts
William Holman Hunt (later renamed the painting "Strayed Sheep")
John Constable. A Mill at Gillingham in Dorset (Parham's Mill). 1826. Oil on canvas. Yale Center for British Art,
New Haven, CT USA.
St Jerome in the Wilderness
Albrecht Dürer's 1495 painting "St Jerome in the Wilderness."
Robina Williams was born in a small village in Cheshire, UK. She now lives in nearby Liverpool. She has an Honours degree in Modern Languages from Oxford University and a Master of Philosophy research degree in English Literature from Liverpool University. Her research thesis was on the links between Wilkie Collins and nineteenth-century art. She enjoys looking at paintings, and regrets that so many fine and interesting paintings are hidden away in museums' and galleries' storage rooms and are not on public display.
Robina has been a schoolteacher, college lecturer, journalist and secretary. Nowadays she reads only fantasy books. She is a great fan of Terry Pratchett.
Jerome and the Seraph is her first novel, and she hopes that readers will enjoy it.
Visit the author's web site.