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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 March 2007

Moments of Discovery

At heart, I am not an enthusiastic traveler, but travel for research is something I love. There are two places I will visit whenever means and opportunity coincide: New York City and Great Britain.

New York City because it is filled with excitement, information and really great shopping. The New York Public Library is the home of the only US copy of a book I have referred to before: Major General Lord Blayney’s NARRATIVE OF A FORCED JOURNEY. And this grand city is where I had a magical moment of discovery.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a second home to me. From my teenage years on I have spent, all totaled, days wandering the rooms. As a teenager I walked up to Rodin’s The Thinker, so close I could raise my head and look into his eyes. It was my first experience of art as an overwhelming, physical experience. I so regret that now there is a barrier that separates other visitors from that moment of discovery.

More pertinent to the Regency is a visit in 2000. There was a grouping of cut paper silhouettes on display among a diverse group of “newly acquired art”. I walked by the small, innocuous display three times before I finally heard the muse shouting LOOK AT THAT!

Cut paper silhouettes are an intriguing art form, very popular in the 18th and 19th century. We are familiar with it as silhouettes portraits. The examples at the Met raise a casual hobby to art. The forty two pieces (ten of which were on display) are “a series of landscapes combining elements of collage and silhouette.” According to Dr. Elizabeth Barker, Assistant Curator, Drawing and Prints at the Met, “each scene contains multiple layers of cut and torn papers in pale, smoky hues, occasionally strengthened with ink. When illuminated from behind, the scenes create subtle atmospheric effects.” In the regency they were generally placed in windows and lit naturally.

The only other comparable pieces are in a private collection in Northern Island. I have gone back to revisit these silhouettes three times and am amazed at their delicacy and beauty. A cut paper silhouette is a critical plot element in TRAITORS KISS, my first book for Bantam. It is still almost a year away from publication. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you!

There are dozens of moments of discovery I could share, but will limit myself to one more. It began with a long train ride from London to Leiscester to see the “needle paintings” of a well known artist of the Regency, Mary Linwood. From the age of thirteen she worked in needlepoint, eventually developing a kind of irregular sloping stitch that could be said to resemble painting She displayed her work, usually copies of the Old Masters, at shows in London at Savile house on Leicester Square. I used one of those exhibitions in my Kensington traditional Regency, THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY. The best place to find that out of print Regency is at a second hand bookstore or by emailing me for a copy.

A large part of Linwood’s extant collection is kept in Leicester where she lived from age nine. I arrived at a lovely old manor house on the outskirts of the city. To this moment I wish I had thought to take a picture of it. It was right out of a 19th century novel. Not a Great House but the sort of home a country squire would have enjoyed. An honest-to-god porter answered the door and bowed me into the entry hall. Talk about time travel. He took my umbrella and coat, invited me to sit down and went to a telephone (okay so not really time travel) and announced with a distinct edge of excitement, “Miss, the American Lady is here.”

It was a wonderful visit even if it was disappointing to find that lack of funding and improper storage had led to the deterioration of most of her work, fading well beyond their original coloring. Still, Linwood’s needle paintings are an impressive example of another art form of the period that we rarely see now.

Care to share a “moment of discovery” from your travels?

Mary Blayney



12 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Can't wait for the book, Mary! I'm dying to see how you worked the cut paper into the plot.

For me, travel is always about discovery. My first trip to England was a revelation. How small Mayfair is! I can walk from Grovsner Square to Green Park in about fifteen minutes. And Bath. I had no idea how steep the streets were.

And it's fun to see things in movies that you've seen in real life, and disturbing when they get them wrong. One of my friends can't get over the fact that they didn't use the real Pump Room in Amazing Grace. And I will say I was discombobulated the whole time we were watching that scene. LOL!

And Mary, we still have a Thinker here in San Francisco that you can get close to. It's at the Legion of Honor.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'll try to see the cut paper silhousettes when I go to the Met next month, Mary. Is there a way, do you think, that I can inquire whether any of them are being shown? (Oh, and btw, the Ladies of Llangollen put one of them in their window, to commemorate some occasion... sadly I forget which)

As for travel discoveries -- gosh there are so many, even from first impressions...

That practically all of Paris looks like you expect Paris to look, so you need only enter the city and it's as though you're coming home to your dreams.

Whereas London isn't so prissy about preserving itself, so it's a palimpsest of new and old; you have to look harder, it's a different kind of pleasure...

And Tokyo -- which has no zoning laws, and therefore can present anything to the eye at any time -- is a multitude of cities, and can also be sliced horizontally, an upper city of lights and skyscrapers, a wonderful lower city of funky alleys. Tokyo is the Blade Runner city already existing.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Kalen, when RWA is in SanFrancisco --- (2008, right?) I will be sure to visit the Thinker that is there and, Pam, that is exactly what I love about London, the little pockets of history that surprise you, Though I have to admit that the American Embassy building is completely out of place on Grosvenor Square.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pam -- the cut paper transparencies are not on display al the time. In order to see them all you need to do is set up an appointment with the Prints Study Room 212-570-3920.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Travel discoveries---going to one of my classmate's home just outside of New Orleans---to discover her family lived in a decaying plantation (as they had for generations, predating the civil war).

The place was filled with furnishings from the 1860's and they had been selling off the furniture piece by piece for years just to hang on to the place.

The grounds were overgrown and the lovely plantation home was falling down, but incredibly, it was like walking into a living museum.

Not London, or Paris, but exotic and it evoked the feel of traveling back in time all the same.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Magical, Kathrynn. There is a story in that experience and it's all yours!

Mary

6:03 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The plantation experience must have been extraordinary, Kathrynn. And thanks for the Prints Study Room phone number, Mary.

As for seeing our Thinker at the Legion of Honor when RWA is in SF next year, I really look forward to showing off our city -- and NOT just Fisherman's Wharf -- to everyone. Here's to a host of Moments of Discovery.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

What a fun post! I like walking around London and Paris. It's only when I visit there that I rediscover that walking can be such a pleasure. You get to observe so many out of the way little quirks that you would miss if you zoomed by on the bus. For me, a satisfying vacation always means staying put in one place and walking around a lot.

Embroidery as brush strokes? Oh my goodness gracious! Having talent for neither, a combination of the two sounds like astounding wizardry. When you saw the actual pieces, did you agree that they look like paintings by the Old Masters?

I found a link here (search for "Mary Linwood"). The picture in the article shows some pictures to be of gallery size. WOW!

12:52 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Mary wrote, "An honest-to-god porter answered the door and bowed me into the entry hall. Talk about time travel. He took my umbrella and coat, invited me to sit down..."

The house was a private house that did tours? I had no idea you could request something like that. A porter. How cool, is that?!

12:59 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'm so with Pam. I can't wait for my home town to host RWA . . .

3:16 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Kalen, hope you put your theme suggestion in the hat for the 2008 conf.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

sorry. . . Just testing.

10:21 AM  

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