I didn’t have a Holbein in 17th century France, where both Honour and the Sword and In the Name of the King are set. French painting of the time is mostly highly formal, and pays closer attention to clothing and setting than it does to the face.
Here, for instance, is a picture of 17th century French clothing, with Louis XIV inside.
Inspired? No, I wasn't either.
Fortunately I tend to avoid writing about Kings and Major Personages anyway, so I can make my heroes look just as I please. Thanks to Penguin I know exactly what André de Roland looks like, and it’s this.
But I wonder if it can sometimes be a drawback to know what our characters really look like. My first venture into historical writing was at age 7 when I wrote shockingly bad ‘fanfic’ based on the film ‘Zulu’, doubtless inspired by the manly glamour of the stars. Then my historian father insisted I do some proper research, and I was horrified to find ‘Lt Bromhead’ didn't really look like Michael Caine at all.
Superficial, of course, but I somehow didn't feel quite the same after that...
The truth is there's something very uncompromising about photographs. Historical novelists can easily forget the reality of bad teeth, smallpox scars and unwashed bodies when they consider the work of tasteful portrait painters – but photographs show everything but the smell. I suspect ‘scratch’n’sniff photos of the past would be the death of historical romance.
But my next novel (Into the Valley of Death) is set in the Crimean War, and here I have to use photographs. The pioneer Roger Fenton took a huge and impressive collection, but although they certainly show the reality of the bearded and unkempt soldiery (a million miles away from the glamorous young men in the 1968 film ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade') the nature of early photography means they still can’t show personality in the way a Holbein can. The ghostly flatness of sepia robs the figures of substance, while the formality of the poses endows them with the glassy eyes and frozen features of dead people standing up. In a picture where the subject has had to sit unmoving for several seconds nothing natural remains to be read.
Or so I thought. But even modern formal photographs reveal vulnerability the moment we understand what they really are – a manifestation of how the subject actually wants to be seen. In ordinary life we protect ourselves with a string of familiar excuses (‘What, this old rag? I only flung it on at the last minute’) but there’s no escape in a photo. Like it or not, we’re telling the viewer ‘I think I look nice in this dress, I think this expression is particularly winsome’. When the dress doesn’t actually work the result can be devastating. One of my favourite photographs is of a baptism group always known in the family (rather unkindly) as ‘Auntie Mary’s Shoes’…
Historical photos have even more of this quality, because the art was so new and a photograph was a special occasion – perhaps the only one its subject would ever have taken.
Here’s one of my Crimea favourites, of a cornet in the 11th Hussars who looks magnificently martial and heroic until we start to question the suspicious swelling of that puffed out chest. With apologies to the poor man’s memory I’m afraid it makes me think of this famous advertisement for tuna…
This photo gave me the inspiration for one of my characters, not for his appearance, but his personality – just the attitude he takes to being photographed.
Here’s another I think reveals even more:
There’s no pretence here. His posture is slumped as if he doesn’t care what people think of him, and the hunted expression speaks clearly of a man who didn’t want to be ‘taken’ at all. But there’s humour in that face, and I’m almost certain he’s looking at someone out of shot who’s trying to make him laugh. Just on this picture I decided he was his own man, and with a hint of devilry beside.
He was. He turns out to be Captain Verschoyle of the Grenadier Guards, who led a group of volunteers to stand with the 93rd Highlanders in the Thin Red Line at Balaclava, and saved the colours of his regiment at the Battle of Inkerman. He was, in fact, a hero, and I had already planned to feature him in my novel.
I’m not sure we could learn so much from a painting, even by Holbein. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed his sitters to behave as the men in this last picture do, where not even one is looking in the right direction.
It only works when we know what it is – the group photograph of the 13th Light Dragoons who survived the Charge of the Light Brigade. The tall man with the beard is Colonel Doherty, who missed the Charge altogether, but these other men all rode into the Valley of Death – and came out again, leaving the bodies of their comrades behind. Those averted heads say it all.
That’s what the best pictures do. They don’t just show what’s inside the frame, but what’s outside it, perhaps even what happened before and after they were taken. It’s easy to imagine my Auntie Mary putting on those horrible shoes with pride in their glorious whiteness, but I can also see the cornet flopping with relief in his saddle the moment the photographer finished, and hear Verschoyle’s laugh as he was released. The faces of the Dragoons are hidden, but even without seeing them I think we all know what they show.
When I think of that, then perhaps I’m not so jealous of Holbein after all.
A.L. Berridge's website
'In the Name of the King' was published by Penguin August 2011
'Into the Valley of Death' is slated for June 2012
Really interesting! My mum used to have sandals very like Auntie Mary's.
Someone sent me a poem recently which was a very sober response to the famous Charge of the Light Brigade poem; it might have been by Kipling. It was written from the point of view of one of the survivors. If I find it, I'll send you details.
Thank you for your generosity re. my Holbein obsession! Though my passion for Holbein entirely refuses to come down from ceiling height (like a permanently inflated helium balloon) I ALSO agree with you wholeheartedly about photographs - am I allowed to hold a contradictory position? There is something mysterious about them - I can entirely see why some cultures believe that they capture a bit of your soul. This is a brilliant analysis both of their drawbacks (scratch 'n' sniff!!) and their unique power. I love your analysis of the puffed-up cornet, Capt Verschoyle & the Light Brigade survivors. But am I alone in rather liking Auntie Mary's shoes??
I love those Crimean photographs. And the Auntie Mary's shoes picture is wonderful too. I used a photograph of my mother and my aunts as the basis of my first novel, but more of that when it's my turn to blog here! I find photographs tremendously inspiring...I have a nice little collection of Edwardian and Victorian postcards of people. Can stare at them for hours.
Thanks, Sue - I'd love to see that poem. I'm actually a fan of both Tennyson AND Kipling, and suspect the truth of the Charge contains elements of both approaches. Many of the survivor accounts do also show what was splendid and glorious about it as well as what was horrific.
No, I'm totally with you about the 'soul', Harriet. I think I was just being very slow when I first looked at Fenton's work, because I didn't see how pictures so formal could capture the same quality of a 'natural' snap. In that I now believe I was entirely wrong...
Very nice, Louise, and I think Auntie's shoes are fab. My writing subjects tend to be a bit too early for photography, but writing in the Napoleonic period allows for some interestingly candid post-Revolutionary portraiture. But some of the best characterization comes from casual sketching. There is a series of penciled profile sketches made of the scientists and engineers who went to Egypt with the French army in 1798, and many of those men ended up in one of my books. That the artist was a friend to many of them, a rival of some, and comrade to all is readily apparent.
Long before I ever started noveling, I collected antique tintypes and carte de visites for this very reason. I loved trying to come up with the stories hidden within the picture. I still do, though now I get to call it "research"!
Thanks, Adele - though I'm starting to get worried by all the love Auntie Mary's shoes are attracting. Could we be about to see a revival of the dreaded White Strappy Sandal?
You too, Richard! But you're so right about the casual sketches, maybe partly because of the insight they give into the man who's drawing as well as whatever's being drawn. I have a few of those from the Crimea too, but I'm saving them for a later blog.
And thanks, Jessica.You just nailed me totally.I get away with 'calling it research' too!
I love early photographs and remember seeing a Fenton exhibition years ago in London which added a whole new dimension to the Crimean War. For me the character shines through despite (or sometimes because of!) the artificiality of the pose.
Delighted to have found your blog- think I'll be back!
Welcome, AliB - and thanks for commenting!
I'm very envious of your having seen that exhibition.I've only been able to see a few of these pictures blown up professionally to full size, and it does make an enormous difference.
But yes, you're right that it's sometimes BECAUSE of the artificiality that the character shines through. You put it better than I did! :(
Great post! (And the recent Holbein exhibition at the National Gallery was a revelation...)
I was about to say something more, about photography in fiction, but it's turned into a blog post, so it'll be up in a couple of days!
I think Auntie Mary's shoes are seriously cool - as are spectacles of man-nearest-camera.
What wonderful photos! (and writing about them, of course) Like Richard, my characters are set too far in the past for photographs, but that at least means I get them in colour (Renaissance portraits) rather than sepia!
When I was a child I had an aged second cousin who could remember her grandfather telling her about his experiences in the Crimean War. I did meet the cousin's mother, when she was 100+ and I was less than 10 - so I was only one generation away from a real participant! No photo of him that I know of...
a really inspiring post. I know the secret power of photographs. I own copies of two books with photographs from the American Civil War. And a lot of these photographs tell whole stories.
I think black and white photographs are more intense than the colored ones.
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