Novelist Deborah Moggach discusses how the purchase of a 17th-century painting led to a series of extraordinary adventures, soon to culminate in Tulip Fever, a big-screen adaptation of her book. Photograph by Gareth Phillips
About 20 years ago I went to a talk that Alan Bennett gave at Christie’s. As I sat there, my eyes wandered to the catalogues hanging on their strings. I surreptitiously started leafing through one of them, and saw that some of the estimates were not unbelievably high. I thought: God, people can actually buy an Old Master!
I earmarked three, and came back the next week with my mother, who had got rather excited about it. There I was, holding up my little paddle, sweaty with excitement (auctions are very sexy and thrilling things). I bought all three paintings.
Some months later I bumped into Alan Bennett and said to him: that talk you gave cost me £15,000. So I had entered a different world, and was fascinated by the sort of people that go to auctions — the slick European dealers and the rich people from Munich in their fur coats. I was hooked.
One day I was passing Christie’s and saw that there was another Old Masters sale, and I went in to have a look. That’s when I saw this painting, Seated Woman with Servants, attributed to Job Berckheyde. The estimate was £6,000, but I didn’t have the money.
The Friday of the sale came and went. Then, the following Monday I got a VAT refund of exactly the estimate. I rang Christie’s — just to ask what the painting had sold for — and was told it hadn’t made its reserve. So I went in to look at it again, on an easel in the basement. I bought it for precisely £6,000.
I hung it in my sitting room. And whenever I looked at the ambivalent expression on the woman’s face, and the rather suggestive curtained bed, I thought: she’s going somewhere she shouldn’t.
Some time later I was asked to take part in a discussion at a film festival. The event was at the Empire Leicester Square — the very cinema where, some years before, my then-boyfriend, the cartoonist Mel Calman, had suffered a heart attack and died as we were watching a movie together. Being back there churned up the mud — I think that is when you get your most inspired ideas.
The last question I was asked that night was: if you could write any film, what would it be about? I said that I would walk into a Vermeer.
I began to make up a plot about a painter falling in love with the woman he is painting. I intended to write a screenplay, but decided in the end to make it a novel. I wrote it quickly, in a great rush of excitement. I hardly researched it; instead I got books of Dutch art and spread them out on the floor.
The paintings themselves tell you everything about the lives of those people: what they were wearing and eating, practically what they were thinking. Those moments of quiet drama are like film stills — the wife at the virginal, the maid sweeping. You feel that if you blinked they would all start moving away into the rooms and you could follow them. That’s what I meant when I said I wanted to walk into a painting.
I was then living with a young Hungarian artist. He was going out at night and getting stuff from skips — old doors that he rubbed down and painted and panelled my room with. He also made a fireplace that he copied from a Vermeer.
So I’d be writing this book, lying on the floor, and he would light a fire and build a three-dimensional Dutch painting around me. In the mornings he’d bring me up a cappuccino, and he’d make a little Dutch picture in the chocolate — a tulip or something. It was terribly romantic. Didn’t last, but it was lovely.
The book was optioned straight away. Steven Spielberg called and said he wanted to make it into a movie. He faded away, as it turned out, and for a long time the project was shelved. But last year it all came back together, with a new director and a new cast: Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, Judi Dench.
The sets were incredibly beautiful — dark and smoky and atmospheric. I know, because I was an extra: I did walk into a Dutch painting.
So this picture has done so much for me. It’s led to the book and the film, and taken me on a huge adventure. I am grateful for that extraordinary connection, and to have given the woman in the painting a life.