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Thursday, 13 October 2011

Limning - the exquisite art of the Tudor miniature

Limning is a thing apart from all other painting or drawing, and it excelleth all other painting whatsoever in sundry points

Nicholas Hilliard

'Limning' was the contemporary term in Tudor and Stuart times for miniature paintings, portraits which were portable and could be held in the hand. In the days before photography, these likenesses were much prized, and the making of them was considered to be a specialised art, apart from general portrait painting with its own skills and techniques. Many of these special techniques stemmed from those used in medieval manuscript illumination.

Miniatures were designed to be worn as pieces of jewellery too and were kept protected in delicate cases of gold or ivory, or stored in cabinets of rare imported woods. Most limners were also jewellers, as was the case with Nicholas Hilliard, probably England's best known limner.

The painting was done on vellum, the skin of an unborn calf, which is hairless and made the fine surface needed for such small work. It was then backed onto card - often a playing card to give enough rigidity. Dry colours were bought from the apothecary and mixed with a binder in mussel shells. The brush - then known as a pencil- was made from one or two squirrel hairs.

The elaborate clothing in court portraits as in the one of Elizabeth I, left, was brought separately to the studio so that Hilliard could paint the detail without tiring the sitter. This portrait, somewhat idealized, was painted when Elizabeth was in middle age.

Real gold and silver were applied with gum arabic and burnished using an animal tooth set into a handle. To give the crisp effect of lace a more solid white pigment was dribbled painstakingly into its intricate pattern to leave a slightly raised effect. An even heavier paint was used to make raised droplets of "pearls". The sitters often appear paler than they would have when the painting was new because the Red Lake pigment fades in the light.

In Hilliard's Treatise concerning the Arte of Limning he tells us he is extremely fussy about cleanliness, and will not allow coal fires to burn where he is working, lest soot should fall on his work. Even more he urges those who wish to paint miniatures to wear only silk so that particles of lint and fibre might not fall on the work from their sleeves.

This portrait by Hilliard was identified as Mary, Queen of Scots, in the 18th century, although there is still some dispute.

The inscription 'Virtutis Amore' is an anagram of the name 'Marie Stouart.' The style and costume indicate it was actually made after her death as a memorial portrait following her execution in 1587.

I love the transparency of her veiling and the way Hilliard has treated all the different shades of white. I imagine it must have been very difficult to paint something so detailed after the sitter is dead - not to mention spooky!

Miniatures were often given as love tokens or signs of political loyalty. Some portraits have a hidden symbolic meaning that has been lost to us, such as this young man against a background of flames, holding a portrait of a lady. Perhaps he was indicating a flaming passion, or perhaps survival from a catastrophic event.

The art of limning was passed down from master to apprentice. Hilliard was first apprenticed to Robert Brandon, a Goldsmith in Westcheap at the Sign of the Gilt Lion and Firebrand. (What a great name!)

In his turn Hilliard employed Isaac Oliver as his apprentice, and he also became very fashionable in Court circles, almost ousting his master. Isaac Oliver's family were Huguenots and fled France to escape religious persecution. He became known for his realistic treatment of children and his slightly less formal portraiture. Below you can see delightful portraits of two Elizabethan girls.

In The Lady's Slipper, Alice's father encourages her to take up miniature painting. Alice finds the techniques and scale of the work too exacting and decides instead to study botanical painting. However, I loved looking into the art of the miniature and really came to appreciate the skill involved in these small jewel-like portraits. Pictures are courtesy of the V&A museum.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Reading Guides - extra value for your readers, and how to write one

I am nearing the end of proof-reading my new novel, The Gilded Lily, and have decided to make a Reading Guide for it. When I brought out The Lady's Slipper, St Martin's Press asked me to put one together and I really enjoyed it. I thought of it as a bit like the extras on DVD's - the "Making Of" or "Behind the Scenes" that seems to so often accompany a film.

It gave me a chance to tell the reader what inspired the book and to give some historical background that would help with their understanding. St Martin's Press suggested a really good format, so I thought I'd share it with you. If you are about to self-publish your book, why not add a Reading Guide, an added extra for your readers which will illuminate, educate and entertain.

Here are some suggestions for content:

The story behind the story.
What inspired you to write that particular book, and how does it relate to your career/hobbies/skills? This is a story, so take as much care as with your book itself to make it a good story. Perhaps there was an interesting incident whilst you were writing it, or a sudden realisation that made writing the book essential.

The historical or technical background to your book
A chance to help the reader understand the context of your book, when and where it was set. I remember reading Geraldine Brooks's reading guide in Year of Wonders in which she described how living in a small village made her understand the tensions of the closed-off village of Eyam during the plague. I used mine to explain about the tensions of the English Civil War, particularly for US readers who only know about the US Civil War and little about the English Civil War.

A Meet the Author profile
Just what it says, a little bit about yourself, especially anything that relates to your writing. You can say where you live or were brought up, something of your non-writing life too will give the impression of a well-rounded person. A good way is to ask someone else to interview you, the answers will sound more natural and less like you are selling yourself.

Fun Facts
Even in a novel there may be interesting facts to highlight for the reader. For The Lady's Slipper I could have chosen fun facts about shoes, or about Restoration fashion, or even "Gruesome Facts" about the Civil War, but chose instead to appeal to gardeners and flower lovers by giving them snippets about orchids. Here are my examples:

  • The lady’s slipper orchid is also known as American Valerian, Nerve Root, Camel’s Foot, Steeple Cap, Noah’s Ark, Two Lips, and Whippoorwill’s Shoe.
  • One of the most famous, endangered wildflowers in the United States is the pink lady’s slipper,Cypripedium acaule. But it is officially endangered in only two states: Illinois and Tennessee. Georgia lists it as “unusual.” New York lists it as “exploitably vulnerable.” But in the other twelve states it is not listed at all! Even wild flowers like this one can be quite common in many places. The Endangered Species Act required that each state create its own list of plants (and animals) that need protection within its (state) borders. These lists are updated regularly. You can find out which plants are endangered in your state by visiting
  • One of the earliest books about North American plants is from Jacques Philippe Cornut’s Canadensium Plantarum. Published in France in 1635, it features an illustration of a yellow lady slipper. Cornut himself never visited America, though he received imported New World seeds and plants for his botanical garden in Paris. See illustration below.
And yes, a picture is a good idea. Even a black and white picture adds a little bit extra. It could be a photo of you, or something else relating to your book.

Related Reading
This could include books that have directly influenced your own book, or ones on a related theme or from a similar period. It is nice to explain why you chose them or how the writer influenced you. See my reading guide for examples. I really loved this part and found it hard to choose only ten books. But I decided I wanted to pique the readers' interest, not drown them!

Discussion questions
Make sure these are a mixture of general and easy, such as "discuss the Character of X. What does he contribute to the novel?" and harder and more exacting, such as "In what way does the language of the novel reflect X's obsession with food?" That way, your questions will suit a wider range of people and groups. Don't be afraid to highlight your major themes through questions. Sometimes readers read the Reading Guide first, so it can help to point readers to your major concerns, whether your book is deep literary fiction or light entertainment.
If you feel your book has no deep themes in itself, make your questions more about the characters, or ask them to compare the characters' lives with their own.

Your next book
Don't forget to mention your next book somewhere. I nearly did!

Hope you enjoy writing yours as much as I did mine. If you are a writer with another example, please add a link to it in the comments below. Thanks!
You can look at my whole Reading Guide here

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Quaker Week - The Strong and Silent Type

This week is Quaker Week in England, and I thought I might celebrate by re-posting about my Quaker Character, Richard Wheeler. The original post was on Marg's Historical Tapestry site, please bob over there for a look at all her articles.

Richard Wheeler
Like all my favourite heroes he is handsome, strong and capable, but unlike most other heroes when the novel opens he has just become a “seeker after Truth” or a Quaker. Today we tend to view the Quakers as quite conservative, but in the 1650’s when the movement began they were seen as dangerous, radical, even insane. Through the latter half of the 17th century and beyond they were persecuted for their beliefs which were seen as challenging the stranglehold supremacy of the church. Even when they fled to the New World, the persecution continued.

Richard Wheeler was brought up as the wealthy son of a landowner, but his life changed when he followed Cromwell and his parliamentary troops in the War against the King. Richard saw this as a battle for the common man and democracy, so that ordinary people could have more control over their land and property. During The Civil War the English nation tore at its own throat and the battle of brother against brother claimed thousands of lives. Richard Wheeler was brought up as the wealthy son of a landowner, but his life changed when he followed Cromwell and his parliamentary troops in the War against the King. Richard saw this as a battle for the common man and democracy, so that ordinary people could have more control over their land and property. During The Civil War the English nation tore at its own throat
and the battle of brother against brother claimed thousands of lives.

On the left you can see a painting of Oliver Cromwell at the Storming of Basing House by Ernest Crofts RA.

Basing House was attacked by Parliamentary troops on three occasions. The final assault came in August 1645 when 800 men took up position around the walls. Between forty and a hundred people were killed. Parliamentary troops were given leave to pillage the house and a fire finally destroyed the building.

Richard fought for Cromwell against his own ruling class, but the horrific bloodshed he witnessed made him vow never to take up arms again, and led him to join the fledgling Quaker movement which had made a pledge for peace. Quaker meetings are a “sitting in silence” - but the restless man-of-action Richard finds the silent reflection both refreshing and difficult. He remembers his part in the atrocities of war and wrestles with his conscience, particularly as he finds he is falling for Alice, his artist neighbour. Not only does she have radically different views from his own, but also she is a married woman.

Giving up his fine things to live a simpler life – leaving behind his luxurious lifestyle and fine clothes, is not nearly as easy as Richard anticipates, but harder still for an active man is the idea of “turning the other cheek” when threatened or challenged. The seventeenth century was a violent and bloodthirsty period, a period in which hangings and burnings were commonplace entertainment, and Richard is trained as a swordsman in an era where to be manly is to be able to handle oneself wel
l in a fight.

So what happens when Richard becomes locked in a bitter battle against his former childhood friend, and worse, when the life of the woman he loves is in danger? Will Richard fight to defend her, or will he stick to his Quaker vow of non-violence?

My research for Richard Wheeler took me to fields where the Civil War was fought, to the Armouries Museu
m at Leeds, and to libraries where I looked at Quaker journals and George Fox’s diary.

Richard Wheeler’s House was based on Townend in Troutbeck, Cumbria which was built in 1645. (see left)

You can find out more about Richard by reading The Lady's Slipper!

"Top Pick!" RT Book Reviews
"Highly recommended" Historical Novels Review
"Women's fiction at its best" - History and Women