Some parents take their children fishing or to football matches; mine chose museums and art galleries. My father Jacob can’t build a car out of Lego and has little enthusiasm for board games, but he does have an infectious, passionate interest in paintings and was pleased to find a willing disciple.
As a child, the thrill was being with him; loving the paintings came later. The National Gallery in London became a weekend haunt, as did the Wallace Collection, and there were visits to Waddesdon Manor and other National Trust houses — all viewed at breakneck speed (Jacob doesn’t do anything slowly). When I was 12, we went in search of the Piero della Francesca paintings scattered around Italy.
Many other excursions followed, often with my mother and friends. We have just returned from Amsterdam and are planning a trip to Vienna. In the early days of looking at art, to stave off boredom I made up stories about what was happening in the paintings, particularly to the children and animals. I traced Titian’s dogs from one composition to another; gave Gainsborough’s daughters names; fell in love with and foresaw the agonising death on the battlefield of Reynolds’s handsome Captain John Hayes St Leger.
Later, through the solipsistic, muddled teenage years, paintings became a source of solace: it was hard to feel self-pity while gazing at St Bartholomew’s flayed flesh, and even the most self-critical feel beautiful next to Quinten Massys’s The Ugly Duchess.
My course at university included tutorials with the distinguished art historian Francis Haskell, a specialist in the history of provenance. Haskell showed how painters’ works went in and out of fashion. For swathes of time a picture might have pride of place in the grandest state rooms, boudoirs and boardrooms; but if tastes changed, the same picture would be relegated to a back passage or attic.
The art market differs significantly from other industries: the value of each piece is subjective and whimsical. A masterpiece is just something that a lot of people like
I wondered what events and conversations these star paintings had witnessed: if only Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine could tell us about life in his studio or, a few hundred years later, what it was like to be captured by the Nazis. What would Titian’s The Tribute Money reveal about the court of 11 kings of Spain and Joseph Bonaparte? How badly did Gustave Courbet or Jean-Michel Basquiat behave? If only paintings could talk.
Soon after leaving university, I joined the BBC’s Music and Arts department — the luck of being able to align a passion to a career! There I made films about Frank Auerbach, Picasso and Walter Sickert, as well as a series on missing pictures and another, Relative Values, that examined the different ways in which art is perceived by collectors, dealers, auction houses, countries and painters. I became a trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery in my twenties and have since joined the boards of the ICA, Waddesdon Manor, Tate and the National Gallery, where, in August, I will take over as the chair of the trustees.
All these interests and experiences have collided in my novel, The Improbability of Love, the story of a fictitious, eponymous, ‘lost’ painting by Antoine Watteau, bought in a junk shop by a woman as a present for a lover. What the heroine does not realise (she knows nothing about art or the art world) is that buried in the painting’s history is a secret that some will go to any lengths — including murder — to suppress. I could not resist giving the painting a voice: it tells the reader about life in the boudoir of Catherine the Great and the ballroom of Louis XIV, as well as being gifted by Voltaire, stolen by Napoleon and coveted by Hitler.
The novel shifts between the picture’s past and the contemporary art world. The latter is a gift to a writer: where else do you find such extremes of taste, beauty and skulduggery, and all those disparate characters? With an annual turnover in excess of US$100 billion, the art market differs significantly from other industries: the value of each piece is subjective and whimsical. A masterpiece is just something that a lot of people like. Tastes fluctuate wildly, blown on the winds of fashion and opinion. Auction houses and dealers’ showrooms have become gladiatorial arenas where the bravest, wiliest and richest compete to win the prize.
A few years ago, Robert Hughes, borrowing a line from Oscar Wilde, called the art world, ‘A place that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ Though it is easy to be cynical, it’s also true that from the earliest painters of caves, through the Chinese dynasties, the pharaohs, the Greeks and Romans, across continents and cultures, societies have believed in the power of beauty. Great artists distil the human struggle into objects that resonate and inspire across time. They try to make sense of muddles. I find there is a painting to suit every mood and every problem; and looking at pictures and sculpture is a simple, joyous pleasure, a way of learning and a form of meditation.
Hannah Rothschild’s novel The Improbability of Love is published by Bloomsbury. Photograph by Carol Sachs
This article appears in the July 2015 issue of Christie’s magazine. Subscribe here
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