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Why do I write art thrillers?

Why write thrillers set in

the art world?


The first reaction to that question – one that people ask me constantly – is why not? In the time honoured tradition of writing about what you know, I know about art. And the art world. And art history. So when the opportunity came along for me to put together the loves of my life I grabbed it.

            I honestly believe that art is like a bad cold. You just catch the bug. You don’t ask for it, order it online, or sit an examination for it. You just catch it. I caught it when I was a kid, dragged to the National Gallery and then realising – Good God – this was dynamite. Here were people, interiors, landscapes, historical stories, portraits - even bunches of fruit - which copied nature. In some cases, bettered it.

            This was another existence, a peek into other orbits. A secular religion with its temperature controlled spaces and its dazzling overhead sky lights. Galleries were liked huge beating heats in the world’s capitals, heaving with colour and straining to communicate. Monet’s water lilies shimmered, Caravaggio glowered in his constricting corset of a frame. And Titian threw the whole palate of colour, and skin, and sex, at us. In paint.

            Genius? I’ll say.

            It takes a certain kind of skill to pull off emotion in a painting. Some painters have it. Some don’t. Vermeer embodies calm; Velasquez has a kind of upstart smugness; Rembrandt was the miller’s boy made good; and Manet drove the modern world into the lives of his viewers whether they liked it or not.

            I can admire Corot, but adore Courbet. The self-proclaimed "proudest and most arrogant man in France," The women he depicts are shameless, erotic, the men well muscled, dark, swaggering on canvas. Like mountebanks revelling in their supposed wickedness. Only an artist who had been involved in the destruction of the Vendome Column (and sentenced to six months imprisonment for his pains) could have such arrogance.

And I admire Artemisia Gentileschi too. Finally being recognised as a genius of the  Baroque. Raped by her tutor and then taken to court to prove that she had been a virgin beforehand, her father allowed her to be tortured with thumbs screws and her response was to call across the court to her attacker:

            “Are these the rings you promised me?”

            Artemisia had talent to rival any of her male contemporaries, but she ended up fighting for recognition and respect. In England, Charles I admired her, but she was unlucky there too, as we all know what happened to him. The ultimate tragedy of this towering talent is that when Artemisia Gentileschi died her epitaphs make no mention of her art. Instead she was regaled sexually as a nymphomaniac and adulterer.

            For anyone with an imagination art is mind opener. If you want to know what the artist was like, read their biography. But if you want to know on a gut level, look at what they paint. We know Hogarth was a biting satirist – he attacks the church and the politicians, but he could be a drizzling sentimentalist too. Look at the painting of Trump, his pug dog, and The Stages of Cruelty. Not many people cared about cruelty to children and animals in Georgian London. But Hogarth did. He went so far as to set up the Foundling Hospital for orphans. Hogarth might have had a wicked brush, but a great heart.

And then we have Goya. Mad? No, old and wily, and clever in a way people are who had lived in difficult times. Puffed up with early success, Goya’s life became harder as he aged, and as his country underwent Civil War. He painted and engraved atrocities, cannibalism, rape, mutilation, madness. And in his engravings he left us monochrome massacres all the more terrifying for their lack of colour. We don’t need to see blood, or redness, to know a man bleeds. We don’t need colour to care. Perhaps its no coincidence that another war commenter, Picasso, painted Guernica in monochrome. In the end, Goya outlasted the court, the kings, Napoleon, and his own crippling deafness and illnesses. How? With stamina and talent. A Deadly Combination.

You see where I’m going with this? How could I not want to write about these people? Their times? Their wars and lives? How could I not want to make them accessible? Of course thrillers aren’t history lessons, so I write a contemporary story to run alongside the historical facts, but that’s what makes these books so satisfying for me. I’m letting people into my world by stealth. Sneaking them in the backdoor of the art business without them even knowing what’s happening. You don’t like art? You’re not interested in painters? Fine. But wouldn’t you like to know about the artist who received guests and painted them in bed? Did you know that one of the Carracci brothers killed himself because he couldn’t get his employer to pay him? And how about the methods of painting? The monks who used the skins from lambs embryos as the base upon which to create their illuminated works. Michelangelo urinating into his paint to dilute it. Forgers placing ivory pieces into women’s cleavages so that the sweat and oils would age them.

Artists were people. Driven by exactly the same desires as farmers, lawyers, policemen and IT consultants. In short, all of us. The only difference is their day job. Art is not elitist, it has been made that way by the art establishment. Stifled by opinions and pomposity, art that was created for the people has become off limits. In Velasquez’s day, and Michelangelo’s, their works were put up on public display for people to take a look.

In fact, Michelangelo overheard someone commenting on his Pieta, saying that they did not believe he had created it. That night, he returned to the church and carved his name in the sash across the Virgin’s breast. It is still there, look at it. That was a human response, from a human, who also happened to be a genius. Leonardo was human too. He bought birds in the market in order to set them free of their cages. Or was that the real reason? In his notebooks he writes of needing to see how a bird flies. So was it sympathy, or necessity, which prompted his action?

And there’s another thing about art. The language in painting. An open door of a birdcage in a room where there is a woman sitting means that she is not a virgin. A witch’s broom indicates sado masochism (look at Hogarth). Split fruit is decay and sexuality. Apes mean that the person nearby is a deceiver, and the swan is a phallic symbol. You see it’s not the item itself, but where it’s placed in a picture that gives the onlooker the real meaning. How about a three legged stool? Or check out the eye line on Titian’s portrait of Venus Reclining. The pianist is not looking at the naked woman’s face…. And then there is the famous portrait of Magdalena Ventura, by Ribera. This person is holding a baby in their arms, with one naked breast exposed. The figure also has a beard. Magdalena Ventura was, in fact, married: but was both male and female. What is so refreshing is that her difference was celebrated. Different, incredible, made beautiful.

Art did that.

Nothing that has ever been experienced, or seen, or born, or created, has escaped the artist’s brush.  Don’t say you don’t like art. Don’t dismiss it. Look at it without fear: then enter a world you will find extraordinary – and surprisingly familiar.

And that’s why I write thrillers about art.


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