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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

18 June 2008

Kenneth's Collection


I love losing myself in research books, but there's a special thrill to research trips. Walking down streets your characters walk in your novel, exploring rooms they might have lived in, seeing clothes and furniture and works of art and imagining which of your characters might own what, how it would be arranged, what it might represent. It doesn't necessarily mean going to the location where the book is set. I was lucky enough to go to London and Scotland when I was researching Beneath a Silent Moon and "location scout" (that's me in Rules Restaurant in Covent Garden, which first opened in 1800). But I also did a lot of research for the book on trips to New York City. Kenneth Fraser, the father of Charles (the hero), has an art collection that plays an important role in the book. Kenneth Fraser built his collection making the Grand Tour with his friend Lord Glenister. I built Kenneth's collection in my imagination by exploring the the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection.

The allusions in my books tend to the literary and the musical. Even though I've loved museums since I was a child (my mom and I named all the Regency and Georgian paintings at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor when I was ten) exploring the visual arts for thematic references for my books was something new. The Frick is particularly wonderful for this as you can wander through actual house looking at paintings hung on the walls of rooms designed for them, sculptures set out on beautiful tables and desk, marble busts lining corridors. If you get tired of walking, you can take a break on a stone bench in an exquisite courtyard filled with stone statues. I took notes, drew (very bad) sketches, scoured the museum gift shops for post cards. I looked, of course, for works I thought Kenneth might have collected. But I also looked for works that reflect that themes about sex and power (and the intertwining of the two) that run through the book. Which, given Kenneth's personality, tallied nicely with the type of art he would have collected :-).

Back at home I laid out my notes and postcards and bad sketches and picked paintings and statues and sculptures that fit different scenes. Early in the book, Charles is summoned to an uncomfortable interview with his father Kenneth, who has just become betrothed to Honoria Talbot, the girl Charles almost married himself. In Kenneth's study, A Renaissance bronze that had the look of Cellini served as a paperweight. A bit later in the scene, Charles fixed his gaze on the bronze sculpture, which appeared to depict a naked Triton ravishing n equally naked Nereid. He gripped her, either in conquest or supplication, while she looked away and yet curved her body into his own. That description came from notes I took on a sculpture I saw at the Frick.

Later in the book, Mélanie (the heroine) is alone with Kenneth in the wake of a shocking incident involving Honoria, an incident which makes Mélanie question everything she thought she knew about both Kenneth and Honoria. Kenneth was staring at a painting on the wall by the fireplace. Danaë reclining on gleaming red velvet, her head thrown back, her hand extended to clutch a fistful of gold coins. When I saw that painting (at the Met, I think, though I may be wrong, and I don't have time to dig my notes out before I post this), I knew it was the perfect image for that scene.

Still later, when Mélanie is trying to make sense of the world of Honoria Talbot grew up in--She thought of the Fragonard paintings that were littered about the house. Young lovers in a rose-strewn garden, watched over by Venus and Cupid. A world of sugar-coated romance with carnality pulsing just beneath the surface. That description--a metaphor for the world of my fictional Glenister House set whose intrigues form the background of the novel--was inspired by the Fragonard room at the Frick. I still remembering standing in that room, turning to examine the various paintings, and realizing how very much more is going on in them than what first meets the eye.

Kenneth Fraser's collection plays as important role in the plot of Beneath a Silent Moon, but it became much more than that as I wrote the book. It was a way to highlight emotions and draw thematic parallels. It became a living, breathing part of of my characters' world for me--and hopefully for the reader.

Writers, do you like exploring museums and imagining how works of art might figure in your characters' lives? Have you ever written a scene inspired by a painting or sculpture? Readers, do you imagine scenes from your favorite books when you visit museums? Any favorite books to recommend in which works of art play an important role?

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22 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tracy, what an interesting topic and how apropos! I just used a painting that I had seen in the Met in a scene from my historical YA. I've been thinking alot about this lately since my book is set in the Gilded Age, when robber barons sent architects like Stanford White to Europe to buy paintings and furniture by the boatload to put in their new marble palaces. I love the Frick because it is a robber baron house!We still have wonderful houses along the Hudson like Jay Gould's house Lyndhurst and Frederick Vanderbilt's house at Hyde Park that have given me a sense of what it must have been like to be rich in the days when there was no federal income tax.

5:11 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Fascinating Tracy and definitely food for thought. I must confess I have not visited many museums here in the States, something I hope to remedy soon.

However, I have been fortunate enough to tour some great museums in Europe including the Rembrandt house in Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum in the same city (home of The Night Watch.)I must agree that seeing paintings and sculpture in a home setting is far more imagination provoking than when one sees them in a museum.

The most amazing and thrilling things I have seen are paintings in stately homes in England that made me think "That looks like a Turner." and it was!

6:33 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Tracy -- what a great insight into the way your creative mind works. My next book and novella are going to involve music - singing, actually, which I know very little about. Your post is a great template for the research I will be doing. Thanks

7:02 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, how great the you used a painting from the Met in your book--did you go there looking for inspiration for your book or was it one you remembered from prior visits? I spent a great day visiting country houses on the Hudson with my parents years ago.

Louisa, what a wonderful story about the Turner. I had a similar experience with something that I thought "looked like a Canaletto" and actually was.

Mary, I love books that involve music, especially singing. Is it opera? If so, let me know if I can help--I can't sing, but I know quite a bit about opera (my non-writing life involves being on the board of an opera training program).

7:59 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Tracy. I just happened to see a sketch that Dante Gabriel Rossetti did for his painting Lilith and the woman in the painting looked so much like a character in my book, that I wrote it into a scene that her father had bought it for her on a trip to England. My heroine comments on the idea of having such a beautiful piece of artwork hanging in a college dorm room! Although in fact, the dorm room has been transformed into some kind of Gilded Age Arabian nights fantasy room. Ah to be rich!

8:16 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I LOVE RULES, TRACY!!! When I was in London for the Trafalgar bicentennial, I took myself to lunch there and what do you know -- they seated me across from a bust of Nelson, unaware of my own Emma Hamilton connection.

And art is often my inspiration. I was just in the Chicago Art Institute and saw the exact Venetian garden in a painting that I would want to replicate for one of my WIPs. The famous marble Canova, the head of Paris, was an inspiration when I worked on THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY, and sometimes I am stirred by all sorts of emotions that are unrelated to any of my writing. I saw Seurat's "Dimanche a la Grande Jatte," which you fellow musical theatre types know was the insipiration for Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George." But it's always been a favorite painting of mine, ever since high school when I had to give a 30-min report (in French) on someone French and famous and I chose Seurat. I almost bounded up the steps of the Art Institute on Saturday, heart palpitating, and with tears in my eyes that I was going to see it in person (I had the same reaction years ago at the Uffizi when I finally saw Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"). I may have seen the Seurat masterpiece in a Met Museum retrospective some years ago, but I don't remember seeing it.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, that's wonderful you found a sketch that worked so well! And what a fabulous way to show the luxury your character lives in!

10:49 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great story about Rules, Amanda! I had dinner there after I was "La Cenerentola" at Covent Garden. The waiter was nice when I asked questions about the restaurant's history and when I asked him to take a picture of me and explained that I was a writer with books set in the era when Rules first opened, he took me into the older part of the restaurant to take the picture. It was so much fun eating there--and the food was great!

The emotions evoked by certain works of art are fascinating. Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George" is a great example of a work inspired by and thematically about a work of art in a different art form.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, did they let you go upstairs to the 3 private rooms at Rules? They allowed me a little private tour when I told them I was a writer, and mentioned TOO GREAT A LADY, aware that Emma Hamilton had dined there.

By the way, BENEATH A SILENT MOON and ALL FOR LOVE are side by side at an end cap at the B&N on Lexington Avenue between 86th/87th Streets on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When I went in to sign copies of ROYAL AFFAIRS. I made a friend in the fiction person there, and she was all excited to realize that I was Amanda E. She LOVES historical fiction, and had placed our books on the end cap all of her own volition (rather than publisher co-opping). Without knowing it the hoydens are really "representing" with her; she told me she's just discovered Lauren's books (starting at the beginning with CARNATION) and loving them, too.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tracy, I hate to admit it but I did not like Sunday in the Park with George! Either the original production with Mandy Patinkin or the revival by the Roundabout (although the performances and the staging were wonderful). Although I did admire how Sondheim was inspired by the painting.

The first time I went to Chicago for a friend's wedding, I only had time to see 2 things, Marshall Field's and the Art Institute. Well Marshall Field's had been turned into a Macy's but the Art Institute didn't disappoint. I could spend hours in there.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

My new book was inspired by re-imaging the scandal of MADAME X taking place in the 18th century, and the hero's an art collector with a thing for Fragonard (and this all came about before I read BENEATH A SILENT MOON [which I ADORE!!!]).

I love the Frick. It’s one of my favorite museums. When I was in NY a few months ago a friend and I got to drag her boss through the Frick. I was slightly afraid we’d bore her to death, but she really enjoyed watching to the two of us moon over the art, and I think she got a kick out of what turned into our “tour” (we attracted our own little following who begged us to lead them through the MET the next day, LOL!).

3:31 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

The Frick is my favorite hometown museum and it's where I first fell in love with Emma Hamilton many years ago, in the very very painting Romney ever did of her, titled "Nature." She's about 16 years old and has a shy smile on her slightly parted lips. She wears a rose colored gown with a white fichu and her auburn hair cascades down her back. On her lap is a King Charles Cavalier spaniel (they had pointier snouts then). That's the young, [relatively] unspoiled Emma that Greville, Hamilton, and even Romney, with his appraising artist's eye, adored.

3:39 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

No, Amanda, I didn't get to go the private rooms at Rules. How cool that you did! What were they like?

I love that our books are on an endcap at the Lexington B&N--that's fabulous! So great to know there's a bookseller who loves historical fiction and that she's finding our books and Lauren's. Did you tell her about the Hoydens?

Elizabeth, do you like other Sondheim? I didn't see the Roundabout revival, but I really liked both the original Broadway version and a couple of regional theater revivals I've seen. I also once heard a version of the "Sunday in the Park" song (not sure of the official title) by young opera singers that was breath-taking. I've still never been to Chicago, but I keep hearing fabulous things about the Art Institute.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, I'm so glad you liked "Beneath a Silent Moon"! I knew "Lord Scandal" was inspired by the Madame X scandal, but I didn't know the hero was a Fragonard collector--now I'm even more excited to read it! I'd have loved to tag along on your tour of the Frick!

Amanda, I love the painting of Emma Hamilton in the Frick! The first time I saw it, I had one of those moments Louisa described with the paintings that looked like Turners and which she realized really were. I'd seen the painting of Emma reproduced many times, and I sort of did a double take and then got chills realizing this was the original. Every time I go to the Frick, I spend a lot of time with that painting, trying to think myself into her head. It must have been fabulous to have it so nearby when you were writing about her.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, there are 3 rooms upstairs at Rules that over the years (the centuries, really) have been used as private dining rooms (private as in, your very own party of 12, though of course a rather more private party of 2 was likely entertained as well.) I can't find any photos, which leads me to think I wasn't allowed to take any. One dining room was in fact being used for a corporate lunch meeting, so I couldn't get a real look at that one. That one I think was the largest of the three, and the decor of each room is slightly different, though none of them would seem out of place if described in our novels. My brain is remembering prints on the walls, wallpaper, moldings, fireplaces.

I did indeed tell the bookseller about the hoydens and invited her to visit us over here in our den of integrity. She seemed intrigued.

3:48 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tracy, I adore Sweeney Todd and have ever since my father took me to see the original production. I even enjoyed the recent Broadway revival and thought Johnny Depp was fantastic in the movie. My other favorite Sondheim is A Little Night Music which I was actually introduced to via the much maligned movie.

I too adore the Frick as well as the Jewish Museum which is housed in the old Warburg mansion. We have so few examples still around of what Fifth Avenue must have looked like with all the grand mansions shaped like chateaus. One of my favorite books is Lost New York.

The website for Rules http://www.rules.co.uk/home has several pictures of the private rooms.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Defintiely have to work the rooms at Rules into a book! (Elizabeth, thanks for the mention of photos on their website).

Amanda, I hope the bookseller pays us a visit! It would be fun to chat with her.

Elizabeth, I too love "A Little Night Music" (my first Sondheim, which I saw with my parents when i was quite young--I still know the lyrics to most of the songs) and "Sweeney Todd" (loved the recent revival, which I saw at A.C.T. in San Francisco before it went to New York, and the movie, as well as the original production). But I also like "Sunday in the Park," as well as "Into the Woods," "Folies," (never seen it but love the score which is gorgeous), "Passion"...

And I totally about museums that are in old houses--it's really like stepping into the past.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is my favorite Sondheim musical. I love the way he gives himself "exercises" -- e.g. to write a musical entirely in waltz time; or to riff on Kabuki theatre (PACIFIC OVERTURES) or to achieve the musical equivalent of Pointillism (SUNDAY IN THE PARK...), and yet, for the most part, they work like gangbusters. Although I appreciate what he's doing with it, I'm not a fan of SUNDAY's score because of the staccato, atonal quality (except for the gloriously melodic finale). It's also hard as heck to sing. I've always been surprised that A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC hasn't remained the hit, or been considered the masterpiece that I always thought it was.

6:04 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I also enjoyed Company which I saw twice in the recent revival and also on PBS, and Follies which I saw revived in London at the Shaftesbury Theater with Diana Rigg and Daniel Massey. The problem for me with Sunday is that the music reminds me too much of Stravinsky, what Amanda said about its being atonal. Its hard on the ears, although I could see that since Seurat's art was emerging in a different way from the Impressionist movement, Sondheim wanted music to reflect that. I do admire that most of his musicals are about human relationships, how they grow and change, and either work or don't work. And certainly he doesn't repeat himself.

Talking about Rules made me think of Keen's, which is the only real New York equivalent right now since Gage and Tollner closed. I once took a tour that included the private rooms upstairs including the Lillie Langtry room.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda and Elizabeth, I totally agree about the echoes of Stravinsky, but I quite like Stravinsky, which may account for my different reaction to "Sunday in the Park." "Rake's Progress" is one of my favorite operas. I saw it last winter, right before I saw the film of "Sweeney Todd," and I could definitely draw a connection, in a good way, between the music in both. I hadn't thought about "Sunday in the Park" being particularly Stravinsky-esque, but that makes total sense. But I think you can hear the influence of Stravinksy, and also (on a more melodic note) Bernstein, in a lot of Sondheim's music. But for that matter, there are a couple of moments in "The Rake's Progress" that have Bernstein-esque feel to me. I love how you can find echoes of different composer in other composers' work, just as you can with writers who are influenced by other writers (not at all in the sense of copying but of building on literary or musical ideas).

"A Little Night Music" is probably my favorite Sondheim as well. I'd love to see a revival. And I also love "Company," which I've never seen performed, though I know a number of songs by heart.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Romi said...

I would like to live at the Huntington Museum in Pasadena, California. Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough are two of my favorite artists. There are two portraits of a husband and wife that have fascinated me for years. I am incorporating their story in my first historical fiction work in progress.

8:51 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Romi, I love the Huntington! I first went there as a twelve-year-old with my parents. I was reading Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, and I particularly loved the Gainsborough and Reynolds and particularly Thomas Lawrence. I still have a print of "Pinkie" that I got on that visit. I was back at the Huntington when I was writing "Secrets of a Lady," and the Lawrence paintings were the inspiration for the painting of Mélane and the children in the book. It's wonderful that you were able to incorporate two of the paintings into your novel! Is it the paintings themselves or the real people who are the subject of the paintings or both?

9:43 PM  

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