We all have subjects we’re particuarly drawn to and in the almost 11 years I’ve been running this blog, novels about art and artists, real or fictional, are consistently among those I’ve enthused about the most. Sure, I love galleries and exhibitions and the beauty, stimulation and inspiration art gives me but I’ll also admit to being a bit seduced by the romantic myth of artists as sensitive, often troubled creatures with unconventional personal lives. I’m sure the artists I know in real life will be snorting reading this but even if it isn’t true of most, it tends to be of those who make it into novels. Artist Lynn Bushell has twice excelled at capturing famous artists in fiction – her novel Painted Ladies about the muses of Pierre Bonnard was my favourite book of 2019, and her new release The Lovers and the Dustman achieves something similar with British artist Stanley Spencer. I’m thrilled that Lynn accepted my invitation to share her experience and expertise today and my review follows:
I’m often asked what it’s like to be an artist writing about artists. Can I draw on insights others are denied? I certainly know how it feels to hanker for the smell of turpentine when oxygen’s the only thing on offer and to understand the often brutal single-mindedness that art demands. Most people learn to live with the world they’ve been born into. Artists invariably want to change it.
The painters I wrote about in my last two novels shared the same obsession for painting, but both had already found a world they could inhabit. For Stanley Spencer it was Cookham, his Berkshire birthplace. For Bonnard it was his kitchen with its animals, its objects which remained for decades in the same place on the dresser and his common-law wife, Marthe. Into this unchanging world came Renée Montchaty, the eighteen-year-old model who became his muse, his lover and finally his victim. It was her story rather than his that interested me.
When I came to write about Spencer I was again lured away from my subject by Patricia Preece, the woman history claimed had seduced him, wrecked his marriage, stolen his assets, flaunted her gay lover in front of him and then had the nerve, when he was knighted, to assume the title ‘Lady Spencer.’ It was her voice that clamoured to be heard. So often what happens in the shadows is more interesting than what happens in the glare.
I hadn’t set out to become a writer or a painter. Some people seem to know from the moment they’re born who they are and what they want to be. I still wake in the night and wonder what my life might have been like if I had not allowed myself to wander down this pathway as opposed to that one. None of it was planned.
At school I didn’t shine at anything. I went to university to study languages but couldn’t cope with Old High German. I was fortunate that Edinburgh was my place of study. Not only was it one of the most beautiful cities in the world but it ran one of the first Fine Art courses – students spent their days at the Art College and went to lectures in the evening. Our tutors were descendants of the Fauves who’d come from France in the early 1900’s and colour was integral to their teaching. I was there for five years and completely spoilt for real life afterwards.
Like most of those things that turned out to be significant in retrospect, I started writing as a means of subsidising my work as a painter. Over the next ten years, I did a stint as features editor on Vanity Fair, worked as research assistant to Michael Holroyd on his Augustus John biography, taught Life Drawing in various London colleges and lectured at The City Literary Institute. I even became an artist’s model myself. One year I worked as a night nurse in a home for aging nuns. My husband likes to joke that that if he hadn’t found me when he did, I would undoubtedly have ended up a bag lady.
When I had my first exhibition in London, I was told I would have to choose between painting and writing or risk failing at both. I eventually became a writer, rather than a painter who wrote, after noticing that whenever catastrophe struck, I reached for a pen rather than a brush. What you do in despair says a lot about you.
Paradoxically, I think indecisiveness is no bad thing for an artist. It allows for the happy accident and most artists will agree, I think, that this accounts for most of the good stuff in their work. If you are too much in control, you miss things. The most useful advice I got as a painter was to avoid becoming fixated on one part to the detriment of the whole. I suspect the same goes for life.
When looking for a cover illustration for The Lovers and the Dustman I came across a wonderful painting of Stanley Spencer wheeling his pram laden with paints through Cookham. Above his head, angels in Wellington boots poured holy water over him. I knew immediately that I had to have this as the cover for my book so imagine my delight when I discovered that the artist, now long dead, had been my tutor back at Edinburgh in the 1970s. It seemed to vindicate my decision (if it can be classed as such) not to call myself a writer or an artist but to hang out somewhere between the two. So many things in my life were a consequence of serendipity that making actual decisions would have seemed ungrateful and as T.S.Eliot insisted, it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important.
Thank you so much to Lynn for this wonderful piece which I’m sure any creative person will relate to although its wisdom has much broader applications. There’s comfort for many of us in that last line!
IN BRIEF: My Review of The Lovers and the Dustman
It was a fantastic surprise to hear at the last minute that Lynn had another art novel coming out but my thoughts immediately returned to the stormy Sunday afternoon I spent at a hotel bar in Dakar, consumed for hours by her novel Painted Ladies. Could anyone cast that kind of spell on me twice? Any doubts dissipated within minutes of starting The Lovers and the Dustman. For a start, the period and the rural English setting lend the novel a charm and ambiance reminiscent of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s hugely popular Cazalet Chronicle. As described above, the novel explores a romantic set-up you couldn’t make up and whatever your beliefs and experience of sex and relationships, they could not fail to be engaged (possibly outraged) by what goes on here. The character dynamics are something else, and the dry wit which is one of the book’s major strengths produces dialogue which often had me laughing out loud. Another is Bushell’s first-hand understanding of the artist’s life and all that this entails.
I was expecting to admire Patricia, who lived a relatively open queer life when that was absolutely not the done thing, more than proved possible. Her behaviour in all spheres, not just the intimate, and the way she treats Spencer (who has his own flaws, it must be said), his (ex-)wife Hilda and her own lover Dorothy Hepworth is so manipulative, shameless and self-serving it would make any modern feminist wince. But in addition to reflecting the reality of the situation, as any writer knows it is generally people behaving badly that make a good story. For me Patricia is a great example of a character with a trait far more fascinating than the over-rated ‘likeability’; instead of relaxing in her company, you’re compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what breathtaking thing she does next.
There’s a summer exhibition, Delight in Nature, which I plan to visit at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham until 30 October.
If you’re looking for interesting and different holiday reading as high season approaches, do check out my Summer Reads selection including fiction, non-fiction and memoir which got an enthusiastic reception a few weeks ago. Tomorrow I’ll be releasing my Summer Reads Extras, an additional handful of excellent books AND I’m recording a radio show matching 12 titles from the two posts with some great tunes – more details to follow!
Thank you for this excellent piece, Isabel. I loved ‘Painted Ladies’ but somehow missed that Lynn is herself an artist as well as a writer and it is so interesting to hear her perspective on writing about art and artists. This book sounds absolutely fascinating and right up my street – have just ordered it for my next read!
So pleased to hear that, Cathy, and am sure Lynn will be too!
Lynn commands such a poetic prose style. I am a most fortunate poet to have been guided and influenced by her as a teenager and (by a fusion of serendipity and the internet) in the autumn of life. Had she become a bag lady, as she one time thought she might, she would have been a stylish one with an admiring following among street poets, pavement artists of distinction, and all who recognise brilliance in any guise, Lynn would have been a latter day Vera Rich (British writer and holder of the highest Ukrainian award for literature). Read and look at Lynn’s works in two major fields of the Arts; you’ll take her to your heart.