Imagined Lives

Character and back story are basics to a writer, but they might not be interesting to the average art lover. I was intrigued when the National Portrait Gallery invited writers such as Alexander McCall Smith, John Banville and Tracy Chevalier to write back stories for some of the portraits in the gallery where the identity of the sitter is in doubt. The project is called Imagined Lives.

I never need an excuse to visit to the Portrait Gallery, I find both the paintings and the photography there invigorating and inspiring; faces fascinate me, they tell so much about a life.  Because I was keen to see how these writers tackled their task, and I had a couple of hours spare in the centre of London, there was only one place to go.

There are fourteen portraits in the collection, most painted around the sixteenth and seventeenth century.  They all had identities that were later disputed.  One was thought to be Mary Queen of Scots another Queen Elizabeth I.  In the book that accompanies the event the Chief Curator, Tarnya Cooper gives a very comprehensive explanation of why these identities became disputed, most were due to improved date detection techniques.

The faces are interesting and varied.  I wanted to know more about them and being a biblioholic I bought the book and rushed to the gallery cafe for a coffee with the expectation of being transported into the world of the unknown portrait sitters. Stories from beyond the grave and the imagination.

I don’t know what the authors’ brief was but I was immediately disappointed. Half of the eight writers simply made up a character and listed lots of facts and dates.  Julian Fellow’s two pieces were so dull I couldn’t finish reading them.  It was like reading a text book and showed no real skill.  I am pleased to say that some met my expectations.  Minette Walters even managed to plant a suspicion in the readers’ mind.  Tracy Chevalier’s two pieces showed the most skill in exposing a character through a story, and Terry Prachett was the only one that put a smile on my face.

I applaud the National Portrait Gallery for commissioning this project.  It is always encouraging to see writers being invited to participate in any art form but if I am honest I now wish I had used my two hours to pop next door to the National Gallery and soak up their Leonardo exhibition.

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