The Blue Horse
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Philip Miller writes about The Blue Horse from Freight Books.
Finding The Blue Horse by Philip Miller
My debut novel The Blue Horse is set in the art world, mainly in Scotland.
It concerns a young widowed curator of Dutch Golden Age art, George Newhouse, and his attempt to start a new life in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. He is also searching for a lost painting. This lost painting, The Blue Horse, was painted by Pieter Van Doelenstraat, a minor but intriguing Low Countries artist of the 17th century.
Newhouse’s job entails much research of his own — the research becoming a quest, rather like, as one character says, Sir Pelinnore’s search for the Questing Beast. My own research for the book, which took about four years to write, was somewhat less dramatic.
Much of the book, of course, comes entirely from my mind. The characters, the fictional galleries and buildings, even the depictions of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ireland, Los Angeles, London, Venice and Vancouver Island — although absolutely based on my own experience — are a reality from a certain point of view, from a certain sensibility. So the only research I needed to do, for much of the novel, was to interrogate my memories and feelings.
I set the novel in the art world for several reasons, but a prominent reason is that it is the world in which I work: since 1999 I have been the arts correspondent for newspapers in Scotland. In particular, I have been Arts Correspondent for The Herald since 2002. I cover cultural news every day. With my writing time limited, and proper research opportunity scarce, I set the book in something I know reasonably — if not entirely — well. After a while, I began to live a double life at work: reporting and interviewing and blogging for my newspaper, but also making notes, storing away observations and quotes and other materials for my novel. I wrote the novel mainly at night, after work and my young family had gone to sleep. So my research time was rather limited, in those dark hours, to my notes, my memories, and books.
For details on the Dutch art in the book, I made much use of A View of Delft by Anthony Bailey, as well as Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes, and a great introduction to Dutch art called The Dutch Painters by Christopher Wright. For a chapter involving Goya, I leaned on Robert Hughes’ book (Goya). And I did a lot of looking and checking of dates and facts online, especially on national gallery painting databases.
A trip to Denmark for work inspired me to include or name check works by Vilhelm Hammershøi, Christen Købke and one painting in particular, Joakim Skovgaard’s Christ in the Realm of the Dead, a striking work which is part of the Danish national collection.
Some reading took me in unusual directions. One of the novel’s main characters, Rudi Hessenmuller, is designing an exhibition about the depictions of Christ’s penis. This is not, sadly, an idea that came to me unprompted — it is based on a fascinating article I read in Frank Kermode’s Bury Place Papers, his selection of essays published in the London Review of Books. In turn, that article, “Under the Loincloth,” is a review of The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, by Leo Steinberg. I took some of the notes and ideas in that essay and put them to use in Rudi’s rather crude hands.
It has been interesting to see the novel described, in whole or in part, as a satire. Overall, satire was not my intention. I will admit: it was clear to me, and hopefully the reader, that Newhouse’s world is a heightened or distorted version of reality. But much of that version of that reality was taken from my experience as an observer, reader and reporter — Rudi’s priapic exhibition is a prime example.
For Newhouse’s life, I did meet with one prominent curator to glean specific knowledge of his job. Not to find out exactly how galleries work internally, but more to try and gain some insight into the character and academic backgrounds of art curators themselves. But the rest of the machinations of the Public Gallery and other art bodies in the book has been either taken from my mind, or based on what I have experienced and reported.
In particular, the deadening, silly and sometimes nonsensical language of arts-management speak present in the novel is taken from reality. Indeed, in one key gallery meeting in the book, various phrases (‘we need to capture the wow moments’, ‘we have no narrative’ and so on) are taken directly from a museums conference I covered several years ago. A director of a gallery once told me he wanted his institution to be a ‘warm and welcoming node’. And so on.
I made an effort to distance The Public Gallery, where Newhouse works, from any real gallery. I made sure the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) do exist in the book — it would be hard to imagine Edinburgh without them — but in the background. The Public Gallery is not the NGS: I had no particular interest in ‘sending up’ a real place, or real people, although I did enjoy writing those scenes, because they are (meant to be) amusing.
However, one key plot point is taken from a real part of NGS history. In real life, the Duke of Sutherland’s great paintings on show in Scotland, including two exceptional works by Titian — Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto — could have left the galleries and the public realm entirely. The paintings are part of the Bridgewater Collection loaned to the Scottish National Gallery in 1945 by the then 5th Earl of Ellesmere (later 6th Duke of Sutherland). The present Duke of Sutherland needed to sell them to raise money. Their loss would have been a blow to the NGS. In the end, they were bought for the nation for huge sums in 2009 and 2012. This affair, which I covered in detail as a journalist, clearly inspired the removal of paintings from the Public Gallery by the shadowy Ardrashaig Holdings.
The climax of the novel is at the Venice Biennale. I have visited and covered the Biennale ever since 2003, when Scotland, and its Scotland + Venice project, began having its own independent exhibition at the festival outside the UK Pavilion. Venice, as it has with many writers and artists, engulfed me with its beauty and distress, its often silent maze of streets and, when the Biennale is on, the colour, excitement and chaotic buzz of hundreds of contemporary art shows.
I always knew the novel would end in Venice. It was only with the last two Biennale’s, however, that I began to make notes specifically for the book, in 2011 and 2013. I recorded exact street names, and in particular the textures, atmosphere and details of the Giardini gardens, where the main national pavilions, or shows, are staged.
In 2013, I saw the huge black yacht of a prominent Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, berthed outside the gardens. It caused a bit of a stir at the time — some felt its signal presence was rather uncouth. A key character, Mr Vardoger, has his sinister yacht, The Old Man, there too.
As the book has a puzzle at its heart, I felt able to play with the meanings of a lot of the names, and Vardoger is an example: Vardøgr is a Norwegian word defined as ‘‘premonitory sound or sight of a person before he arrives’’. It is almost like a doppelganger. Vedovo, the name of an important Palazzo in Venice, means widower in Italian. Rudi Hessenmuller’s surname was my family’s name until it was changed to Miller after the First World War. Van Doelenstraat’s surname is taken from the street in Delft where once a disastrous explosion took place in 1654. Colebrooke and Flintergill’s names were more close to home: Colebrooke is the name of the lane behind my house in Glasgow, Flintergill a beautiful beck in the north of England, where I grew up. The artist Crawford MacPherson’s surname came from the Scottish writer who wrote the infamous Ossian poems, whose provenance is doubted. The Old Man is an old term for Satan.
And, of course, there is the protagonist of the book: George Newhouse.
His name is a rough approximation of another famous Venetian lover — Giacomo Casanova.