My eighth novel, Angelica, Paintress of Minds, will be published by Barbican Press in June. to coincide with an exhibition of her work at the Royal Academy.
A few years ago I had the good fortune to be awarded a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the Courtauld Institute, then housed in Somerset House. I became fascinated by the history of the building itself and by the story of the foundation of the Royal Academy there in 1768. In the library, deep in the basement, I found two excellent books: James Fenton’s School of Genius, a wonderful introduction to the eighteenth century art world in London, and Angelica Gooden’s biography of Angelica Kauffman, Miss Angel. Until then I only knew her paintings from visits to Kenwood House.
Angelica’s mother was Swiss and her father, an unsuccessful painter, was Austrian. She grew up in her father’s studio and he soon realised that she was immensely talented. He used to ask her not to sign her paintings and would pass them off as his own. Other successful painters, including Artemisia Gentileschi and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, were also the daughters of painters; without such a background it was very hard for women to acquire an artistic education. Angelica was a prodigy, as can be seen from this self portrait she did when she was thirteen.
In addition to being a talented artist Angelica had a beautiful singing voice. This painting dramatizes the decision she had to make in her youth to choose between painting and singing. All her life she performed as a good amateur singer and played the harpsichord. The great classical scholar Winckelmann said of her, ‘she sings with our best virtuosi.”
After establishing herself as a painter in Italy Angelica came to London in 1766, when she was twenty-five. She became so successful that a word was coined, Angelicamad. She painted Queen Charlotte and other members of the royal family and her work was reproduced in engravings, as cameos by Wedgwood, on teapots and on Worcester, Meissen and Derby porcelain. The new invention of transfer printing made these items much cheaper and she gained an international reputation. Her popularity had a price; male artists could do as they liked but ‘paintresses’ always had to be decorous or risk losing their aristocratic patrons. Angelica was under enormous pressure to behave as ‘Miss Angel,’ the affectionate name her friend Joshua Reynolds gave her. Astonishingly, she was so well liked and respected that she survived the potential scandal of her first bigamous marriage to a fake Count.
I stared at this painting by Zoffany of the life drawing class in Old Somerset House and was intrigued to see that portraits of Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were on the wall, staring down at the proceedings like ancestors. Although they were both alive and founder members of the Royal Academy, as women they were not allowed to attend life drawing classes there because respectable ladies were not supposed to look at a naked man.
After fifteen triumphant and lucrative years in London, Angelica was terrified (as a Catholic) by the Gordon Riots and she decided to return to Italy with her second husband, Zucchi, a Venetian artist.
I discovered that Angelica spent her last twenty-five years in Rome, a city where I lived in my twenties and which I love.
In my novel Angelica, as an old lady, is living in her house at the top of the Spanish steps. As she looks back on her life she is afraid of the new century which is destroying the world she knew and finds herself isolated because her husband and most of her friends have died or left Rome. She has a valuable art collection and expects the soldiers of Napoleon, who she detests, to arrive at any minute and loot it.
In her studio, Angelica stares at her self portraits and relives her journey from a poor background to international fame. She draws us into her fascinating past through her self portraits and the portraits she has painted of her friends, including Antonio Canova, Germaine de Stael, Emma Hamilton and Goethe. This is a novel about a gifted and powerful woman with a kind heart. Like us, she lives at a time of bewildering change and fears the unknown future.
Slowly, my interest developed into a passionate engagement with Angelica and the many interesting people she painted and befriended. Every time I encountered a new name - Reynolds, Canova, Goethe, Madame de Stael and many more - I had to stop writing my novel and read a book, or several books, about them. Thanks to a generous grant from the Authors’ Foundation I was able to return to Rome and also to visit Weimar to learn more about Goethe, with whom I believe she was unrequitedly in love. This is the portrait she did of him, which Goethe disliked because he didn't think it made him look heroic enough.
In order to make a successful career as an artist Angelica had to battle against powerful waves of misogyny. Those battles are still being fought; it was not until 1936 that another woman, Laura Knight, was elected as an RA. Finally, generations of talented women artists are beginning to be recognised. This is the right moment to rediscover Angelica Kauffman’s life and work.