We’re so excited to have this art diary from Sophie Bennett, chronicling her research and inspiration for UNVEILING VENUS.
Unveiling Venus is a story about love, fear, Venice and Victorian London, and a woman struggling for independence in a man’s world. It’s set in the era of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and infused with a passion for art.
I’ve been in love with the art world since my teens when I first learned how to enjoy visiting galleries without feeling overawed and overwhelmed by them. I always try to enter without any preconceptions, and if I only like two or three paintings, that’s OK.
Art galleries used to be dark, dusty places, but they have a real vibrancy to them these days and curators keep finding new ways to bring their subjects to life. I never know quite what’s going to catch my eye. Fortunately, even if nothing does, there is always cake.
Reflections: Van Eyck and Pre-Raphaelites at the National Gallery
Today I’m in the National Gallery with an editor friend who is also an art fan, and we’re both lost. Well, not exactly. We know where we are (the Sainsbury Wing), but the exhibition we want to see isn’t here. It turns out it’s in a little suite of rooms on the first floor of the main wing. We get there eventually, after walking past a procession of Titians and Holbeins. Going slightly off-course in the National Gallery is no hardship.
We’re here to see the new exhibition about the Pre-Raphaelites, who were painting in the middle of the nineteenth century. As I’ve just written two novels set in their world I’m on familiar territory, but I’m curious about their relationship with a Dutch Renaissance painter. Mostly, though, I’m here to catch up with my friend. The art is just our excuse for getting together.
We start with a short video put together by the curators, explaining the significance of the Van Eyck Arnolfini portrait, and how important it was to Rossetti, Millais and their friends. They all knew the painting and it inspired them in various specific ways, from the use of light and mirrors to the inclusion of domestic details such as brass chandeliers and high-heeled slippers. This is a pleasant discovery for me: I hadn’t come across their fondness for Van Eyck in the research for my novels, but I can instantly see his influence now I know where to look. The following exhibition becomes a detective-trail. Once you start looking out for convex mirrors in their delicately-drawn interiors, you see them everywhere.
More than that, I gain a fresh insight into the friendship between the group, which is something I am fascinated by. Knowing that they had an appreciation for this painting in common, it is as if the references to it through little details in their own paintings are part of an in-joke between them. You can imagine them conversing about Van Eyck’s style over late-night drinking sessions in Red Lion Square, then busily going off to include bits of it. The painters come to back to life for a while.
Then it’s off to the café downstairs for a slice of cake and a chat. I judge modern museums and galleries as much by their shops and cafes as their curators. I want the whole experience – from the inspiring work of art to the perfect orange and almond slice, and some world-beating stationery and postcards to take home. Peyton & Byrne at The National Gallery does the coffee-and-cake side well. My friend and I have lots to catch up on. In the convivial atmosphere of the café, we chat about books and publishing for hours.
In Unveiling Venus Mary Adams is by now a famous artists’ muse, but she is trapped by her dependence on the men who admire her. As her own creativity starts to assert itself she can take the easy road to a life of riches – as an object of desire – or forge a harder one as an artist of sorts herself.
After three decades of gallery visiting I have a huge mental store of paintings and artists that I love. Unveiling Venus gave me the opportunity to talk about Titian, the Renaissance master of colour, who I discovered in Venice, and Whistler, the Victorian master of monochrome, whose paintings are in the Tate Britain, not far from where I live and where he made them.
Writing about them gave me the chance to step inside them, explore their world, and play the part of both muse and master. It’s an addictive experience. Just think about it: if you could pick any moment in history, who would you pose for? Or, alternatively, who would you choose to paint? Apart from Titian and Whistler, I don’t think I could have resisted an offer by Modigliani, whose nudes and other portraits are on display at the Tate Modern now. And as for who I would choose to paint … well, I’m rubbish with a brush but I love photography. If I could smuggle a camera back in time to get a shot of Elizabeth I in all her pomp, at the window of one of her palaces, with the light catching the lines of responsibility etched into her chalk-white face … what a picture it would be.