See this picture? It’s an illustration by Arthur Rackham called Fair Helena. It was one of a number of beautiful illustrations that he did for a new publication of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare in 1908. A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law gave me a print of it and I immediately fell in love with it.
Years ago, when I was at university, my bedroom walls were plastered not with posters of Che Guevara or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting, but prints and cards of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Waterhouse and Rossetti and illustrations by William Morris. I’ve always had a love of art, and I studied the History of Art as part of my first degree at York. Since starting to write, a couple of the short stories that I’ve written have used paintings as a starting point and my first, still unfinished, novel, The Part Time Wife, is structured as an art exhibition catalogue might be, the main character being a curator of Victorian art, with the plan to include colour plate images to mark the start and the tone of each section of the book.
So when I saw the Rackham print, which incidently was printed in 1912, testament to how popular the image was in the years following its publication, I found myself drawn to it for writerly reasons that were rooted in more than art appreciation.
Part of the reason, I am so enamoured with the print is because the figure in the picture and the setting in which she stands, resonates so strongly with one of the main characters and her story in my second novel (still untitled as yet). If I could have painted a picture of my character, I could not have painted a more perfect image than Rackham’s, Fair Helena. I was intrigued. If he had produced something that was completely in tune with the images that play in my head while I’m writing, could there be other works of his that ‘spoke’ to me as Fair Helena had done? It sent my research off in the direction of Arthur Rackham, which was very pleasant and I’ve spent the last week or so gazing upon his beautiful, ethereal illustrations on various websites, learning about his life and influences and ordering a book or two to satisfy my new obsession.
Through this research, Arthur Rackham himself and some of his works, are now firmly embedded into the narrative and storyline of my novel. Of course the events that take place are fictionalised, but their inclusion has helped to cement an idea on paper that I had been playing around with in my mind. I think a bit of partial reality in a story adds to the reader experience, entrenches them deeper into the world that is being created on the page, making it seem more believable.
I know of a number of writers that have works of art to directly influence, or link up with, their writing, US actor and writer, Steve Martin, uses a range of different modern art images in his latest novel, An Object of Beauty; Kate Mosse uses photographic images in her latest novel, The Winter Ghosts and the author, Essie Fox,who’s book, The Somnambulist, I am currently reading, used a Millais painting of the same name, as inspiration for one of her main characters and to reinforce the theme of sleepwalking that runs through her story. A quick look at her blog, The Virtual Victorian (http://virtualvictorian.blogspot.com) shows just how much art has influenced, and continues to influence her writing and her life in general. Her next book, set to be called Elijah’s Mermaid, is going be based on the paintings of a Victorian artist who is obsessed to the point of madness with painting his muse as a nymph, or a mermaid. She lists Hylas and The Nymphs by Waterhouse and Water Baby by Herbert James Draper, as just a couple of paintings that have inspired the story. I like the sound of this. I think that perhaps Essie and I are sisters from another mother.
That’s the beauty of research, you never know what you’re going to find. More lovely Arthur Rackham pictures and other interesting facts from my book research coming to this blog soon!