"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Presenting the Duchess (subtitle: My Great Ebay Miracle)

Whether writing nonfiction biography or a fictional one (I've worked on both), the writer obsesses about images. Specifically, portraits of the subject.

The couple in my novel, as members of the aristocracy, were frequently painted, from childhood onwards. The male protagonist sat to Lely, Kneller, Jervas, and others. Some of these images remain with his descendants, some I've found through auction house catalogues, one hangs at a castle in Gloucestershire, one is in the New York's Metropolitan Museum.

I've identified three portraits of the female protagonist, all by Godfrey Kneller.

He painted her as a little girl, with her sister. The whereabouts of that portrait appear to be unknown but I found an illustration in a reference book, his catalogue raisonné.

At the Queen's request, Kneller painted her again. She was then a teenager, one of several aristocratic beauties who surrounded Her Majesty as ladies-in-waiting or maids of honour. That portrait, property of the present Queen, hangs at Hampton Court. About 18 months ago, I went there to visit it.

Yes. I crossed an ocean to look at a picture of the person about whom I'm writing. (I conducted a variety of other research activities--I also discovered her last will and testament in a dusty box in a London library. But I had no idea in advance that it would be accessible.)

My anticipation mounted as we neared the room where she was. As soon as we entered, I asked the Chap to guess which of the lovelies on the wall was the one in my novel. Pointing her out, he said, "That one--the one who looks like you," he said.

Well, I'm not so sure about that. I seem to more strongly resemble the side of the family not related to the duchess. But it was oh, so sweet of him to say so.

For research purposes, I obtained a full-colour print of that portrait. But I haven't purchased the reproduction rights so I can't post it here.

I refer to the third portrait as the "wedding portrait" because Kneller painted it in 1694, the year she married her duke. There's no evidence about what happened to the actual canvas--in all its full-colour glory. It doesn't seem to be in the family, along with other pictures and prints and jewels and other artifacts. I'm still researching its fate.

Fortunately, a mezzotint was made by John Smith, who had the "reproduction rights" of the day for Godfrey Kneller's artwork. The mezzotint process was developed in the mid-17th century, and it enabled Samuel Pepys and those so inclined to purchase prints of the pretty women they admired to hang in their chambers.

My duchess was an early "pin-up" girl.

The National Portrait Gallery in London owns one of the original 1694 prints. It's the only extant one of which I'm aware. And it isn't on display. I've intended to arrange a private view, but haven't got round to it yet. However, a couple of years ago I mail ordered a photo reproduction. A year ago I stopped in to purchase a second one. The NPG has reproduction rights (and licences them, for a price) so I've never been able to share this image on my blog or website.

Occasionally I conduct Ebay searches related to my subjects. On one occasion, the duke's autograph turned up--he'd written a brief note permitting somebody to shoot on his country estate. I didn't need it, but I added the image to my ever-growing file.

My dream item, which I assumed to be unattainable, was the 1694 print of the duchess. The same one the NPG holds. Sure, I looked from time to time, not just on Ebay but all over the internet. But I never in my wildest imaginings expected to locate one.

About three weeks ago, when I was up at the cottage, it occurred to me that I hadn't done my Ebay search for a while. So I did, then and there.

My whim had immediate results--my miracle.

Somebody in the UK was offering the 1694 print. Nobody had placed a bid. The auction had 4 more days to run.

Fast forward 4 days (which dragged by, I can tell you.) By the closing date there was a single bid.

The auction concluded at 2:29 AM my time. Before going to bed, I set alarm clocks all over the bedroom.

When the chorus of clocks woke me in the middle of the night, I staggered into the dining room. I logged onto Ebay from my laptop. I waited till the concluding moments of the auction and placed my bid--a hefty price in any currency. It happened to be in pounds sterling, so the dollar figure was twice that amount, so much that no normal, non-obsessive person could possibly conceive of paying that amount for a very old paper in a dodgy frame.

Needless to say, I won the item. It didn't come cheap, but I prevailed over the other bidder and still hadn't hit my highly inflated maximum.

There were a few harrowing days during which the seller went silent. Later, when contact between us resumed, it transpired that the person had been unwell. Then I felt bad about all my selfish worries that somehow the deal might fall through.

I could've picked up the print on my UK trip, but it was cheaper and quicker to entrust it to the Royal Mail and the USPS. I couldn't wait, I was too impatient to get my hands on it.

Yesterday I arrived home to find a large flat parcel leaning against the door. When I saw it was a box from a B&Q (a UK store) I realised the duchess had arrived sooner than I expected. I ripped away the cardboard and the bubble wrap.

And there she was.

I judge the frame to be 19th century. Turning the frame over, I discovered it's pieced together from very old, holey boards, and the backing is held by tiny metal nails.

I intend to remove the print--which is in remarkable condition, considering it's 313 years old--get it scanned somewhere (it's larger than my flatbed scanner) and give it an acid-free mounting with new frame.

I've taken lots of pictures of the framed print, glass and all, and can offer a closer view:

Oh--naturally I asked how and where the seller acquired the print.

"Car boot sale," I was told.

I wondered if maybe my treasure had cost a fiver, or some insanely small sum--not that I cared. Based on the amount on the Customs' valuation, the seller's investment was about half what I paid (shipping excluded).

What a journey! From a print shop in 17th century London to somebody--or many somebodies'--households to a bric-a-brac market in Southern England to the one person in the world who was searching for it. And is elated to actually, miraculously possess it!

Moral of the story:
Never, ever give up hope.

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