Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Reading Art

My love of writing comes directly from my love of reading. There is an indescribable pleasure in becoming immersed in a tale, just you and the story together, excluding the world for a few stolen moments. I recently loved a book so much that I carted it up to London to read on the train as I had to know what would happen. That book was Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, and got me thinking about writing a quick piece regarding the best novels you can read about the Victorian Art Scene. Here are my lucky seven recommendations….

7. Gillespie and I Jane Harris
I bought this about a fortnight ago and couldn’t put it down. It concerns a ‘Glasgow Boy’, Ned Gillespie, and his would-be biographer Harriet Baxter. Like most of the books on this list, the story isn’t about his art, but the interaction of his art with the real life events makes for touching and chilling reading. One of the things I loved about the book is the use of the first person narrative, calling into question what you are being told and how it relates to the ‘facts’. It’s both entertaining and horrifying in equal measures and reduced me to fighting travel sickness just so I could find out what happened in the end.

6. The Vesuvius Club Mark Gatiss
This is a naughty book.  Excuse me, this is a naughty, morals-destroying, resolve-loosening, seducer of a novel.  If you are easily shocked, this is not the novel for you, however if you fancy being ruined by Lucifer Box, you know he's up for it.  Mr Box is a portrait painter, but also a cunning gentleman of action, a bit like if Millais was secretly James Bond.  Oh, that just makes my head hurt...

5. Sleep, Pale Sister Joanne Harris
I’ve spoken about this book before and I have to admit a guilty adoration for just how insane this book is. Part murder-mystery, part laudanum-induced nightmare, the plot is Sensational (in all senses of the word) but never less than entertaining. The artist, Henry Chester, is part Lewis Carroll, part Millais and all very wrong indeed. No doubt a nod at Ruskin, he marries a child-bride called Effie who both disgusts and fascinates him, until they are all dragged into a thoroughly unpleasant web of revenge, where the outcome is extremely uncertain for all concerned. I loved this because it evokes the period nicely and gives you, full gusto, the more hysterical side of what we suspect about our beloved Pre-Raphaelite art scene. There are no half-measures and you will not be bored.

4. Ivy Julie Hearn
Yes, I know it’s teen fiction, but when it’s about Pre-Raphaelite art, I’m not a snob. It’s a good read and the artist, Oscar Frosdick is an entertaining mothers-boy with a none too pleasant Mother. Ivy is part Lizzie Siddal and part Oliver Twist, and the result is humorous and gripping with quite a twist in the middle. The drawbacks are part and parcel of the genre – there is only so much that can be said in teen-fiction, that possibly Sarah Waters would deliver in a far more cutting manner, but if you want to get your teen into Pre-Raphaelite art, then this might be a useful route.

3.Mortal Love Elizabeth Hand
Oh dear, I loved this book a little too much and I wanted to own a narrow boat and drive men insane with my mysterious, fatal beauty. Ho hum. Anyway, this is a difficult but rewarding book that skips from one generation/dimension to another. The artist in question is Radborne Comstock, locked in a madhouse, trying to paint his way out and remain sane (which seems a bit of a fruitless task as everyone else seems completely deranged). In modern-day London, a mysterious muse called Larkin is destroying the lives of men as they become involved in a hunt for lost Pre-Raphaelite art. It’s not for everyone, but if you give it a try you may like it (how many times have those words got me into trouble..?)

2. The Crimson Bed Loretta Proctor
Frederic Ashton Thorpe and Henry Winstone love the Pre-Raphaelites and want to be like them. Fred marries the mysterious and troubled Eleanor and Henry finds success and tragedy in equal measure. Centred around the image of a beautiful crimson bed, the lives of these talented but unhappy people embraces art, love and secrets. The story is compelling, and you need to know the outcome of the actions of our characters, desperate to be happy, yet sabotaging their own chances and those of their friends and lovers.

1. The Arrow Chest Robert Parry
No list about Victorian art novels is complete without The Arrow Chest. The artist Amos Roselli loves a troubled muse, but she is slowly being destroyed by her choice of a life of comfort and certainty. A darkness slowly envelops the couple as they attempt to escape a fate so eloquently expressed through Roselli’s art. Possibly the most beautiful realisation of the true landscape of Victorian art, and the most convincing and touching portrait of a Victorian gentleman artist, this has to be one of my favourite novels, regardless of subject. The maid, Beth, made me think of Red Lion Mary, or Watts often-painted maid, and you don’t stop caring and worrying about her or any of the characters from the first page to the end. That, my friends, is how it’s done.

That is my list of art fiction. If you want to read a modern book which mentions Pre-Raphaelite art, try The Dreaming Damozel by Mollie Hardwick or Pale as the Dead (amongst other things). If you want a dramatisation of the Pre-Raphaelite story, you could do worse than try Victorian Love Story by Nerina Shute, The Golden Veil by Paddy Kitchen or The Wayward Muse by Elizabeth Hickey. If you know of more, post them up in the comments! Happy reading...


  1. I have just finished "Gillespie and I" - fantastic book! I usually spend ages plodding through a book but I read this one in four days flat. Mortal Love is another one I read recently. I have to say I wasn't that impressed - although the author is brilliant at describing scenes and capturing the atmosphere of a place (I felt like heading straight out for Camden Town!), the final few chapters are a bit too obscure for my liking with too many loose threads. I am however planning to read it again so maybe it will improve on greater acquaintance. Thanks for the other recommendations - I might come back to this article when my current TBR pile is a little lower!

  2. Sorry just a PS - on the subject of Highgate cemetery and the Lizzie Siddal commemoration, just wondered if anyone had read "Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffneger which I haven't read but is on my list. Apparently it is set in the cemetery and even has a character based on Jean Pateman (the lady whose death was announced at the Lizzie Siddal event)

  3. Thanks for the comments, and no, I haven't read 'Her Fearful Symmetry', although Miss Holman gave me a run-down on it during our travels to get to Highgate. I may have to track it down now... (unless any more Victorian Art fiction falls in my lap) (or any Victorian artists, for that matter)

  4. Oh, Kirsty, you are doing dreadful things to my Amazon wish-list and our bank balance! I didn't overly care for Mortal Love either, but I thought the scenes in the asylum were chilling and started to wonder who was guarding whom!

  5. I'll have to add some of these to my reading list. I actually liked Mortal Love the best of the three Elizabeth Hand books that I've read, although between the painter in an asylum and "The Dog Has Not Yet Jumped Down" it made me think more of Richard Dadd than the pre-Raphaelites. (That may also be because I knew less about them when I read it.) I'm partway through The Arrow Chest, but I'm not sure if I'm going to finish it. I'm not particularly pleased with it. Have you read Little, Big by John Crowley? It's not strictly an art book - though you could call it an architecture book - but it is heavily influenced by Victorian fairy painters, Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, among other things. Also one of the main female characters is something like six feet tall with curly red hair, which alone practically makes it pre-Raphaelite.

  6. I realize it's from an earlier era of art making but have you read this??
    "The Birth of Venus", by Sarah Dunant.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx