Artistic inspiration, by Ali Bacon

On a recent visit to Bristol Old Vic I spotted posters for their upcoming production of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, a play inspired by the renowned painting by Chagal. 

Then opening my book-club read of Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach,  I discovered illustrations in the form of Dutch Old Master paintings which are clearly germane to the author’s conception of her plot and characters. So what's going on?

Crossing from one genre to another is hardly unusual – books become films, plays and musicals all the time, or even vice versa. But how often does one artistic creation take another as its inspiration? Many poems of course reflect on paintings (did I know this is called ekphrasis? – I’d like to think I did, if not, thank you Google for reminding me) but although many  novels, like Donna Tart's wonderful The Goldfinch, involve famous works of art, there aren’t so very many that delve inside a painting for character and plot. The obvious one is of course Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which like Tulip Fever steps into a Dutch painting. The Lady and The Unicorn, imagines the creation of a tapestry rather than its content and is equally mesmerizing. 

Of course since most of Renaissance art is a representation of themes from classical literature and/or the Bible, it can also work the other way. Writers (or storytellers) inspire writers and vice versa. One art form is grist to the mill of another.

So what has brought all this on?

Well many of you will know that a while ago I embarked on a historical novel about a Scottish artist and photographer which never quite came together. His life story had all the ingredients of fiction, or so I thought. But even if his story isn’t widely known, the plot had in a sense already been written. How could I make it any better than it already was? So I reluctantly laid it aside.

Mrs Elizabeth Johnstone Hall of Newhaven
Then last summer a local writing competition announced a theme of ‘Harvest’ – and I immediately thought of one of my subject’s photographs and decided to write not about him but about his sitter. I wrote it (for me!) quickly because I was surprised by how well I knew this lady, a testimony, of course to the original art work.
Silver Harvest, the story of Elisabeth Johnson Hall, didn't succeed in that first competition but I’m truly gratified it has been accepted by Stroud Short Stories where I’ll be reading it this Sunday.

Since then I’ve written a few more short stories based on the photographs of Hill and Adamson. I’d like to think that giving life to their images is as fitting a tribute to their partnership as writing (or not writing!) a novel. 

On Sunday I'll try my best to do justice to their sitter and their art. 

Ali Bacon writes novels and short stories. Preparing for Winter, which she read at Stroud in 2014, is included in this anthology.
Stroud Short Stories

Photo credits: Newhaven Fishwife. National Galleries of Scotland Photostream on Flickr


Lydia Bennet said…
photographs and paintings are very inspiring and can v
create whole books from our imaginations, very fertile ground. your harvester story sounds intriguing!
That sounds like a fascinating project and one after my own heart! Good luck with pursuing it. A group I was once involved with did a project some years ago with each writer choosing a painting from a local collection (The Dick Institute in Kilmarnock) and using it as inspiration for a story or poem - the results were excellent. I have various postcards of artworks I use when I'm doing workshops and it's interesting how useful they seem to be in breaking through that 'what to write' barrier. We talk about them and a few of the possibilities, but people come up with all kinds of ideas of their own. By the way, my novel The Curiosity Cabinet was inspired by an embroidered casket in the Burrell collection.
AliB said…
Hi Catherine - good tip for workshops! And yes, I've read the Curiosity Cabinet and guessed it began with something you had seen. A
Sandra Horn said…
Oh, yes! What a great-sounding project! It was the Mud Maid scupture in the Lost Gardens of Heligan that started me off on a journey to a book and then becoming a publisher.

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