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"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


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Search for a Portrait

Today is the day the duchess died. Because her birth date went unrecorded, this is when I commemorate her. What better time to share my great discovery?

I knew I wanted to write about the duchess and her duke long before the time was right. The idea came to me when I was bound by a multi-book contract. In one of those novels I created a fictional descendant of theirs as heroine. The most intensive period of research and the writing of an early draft took place while I served as an elected official.

An important part of my process, whether writing about historical or fictional characters, is collecting people pictures. For real people, prominent people, I have the advantage of searching out their portraits. And because the duchess was an aristocrat--and a beauty--she was a popular subject. Same for the duke, because his father was a king!

Godfrey Kneller, the popular court portraitist of the late 17th and early 18th century, painted the duchess at least 4 times. First as a child, with her younger sister. Next as maid of honour to Queen Mary II, at Her Majesty's request. Then as a young bride. And another time (I'm trying to find out more.)

The portrait that posed a great mystery was what I refer to as "the wedding portrait," painted in 1694. Kneller licenced John Smith the engraver to make a mezzotint, and copies were sold to the public. The National Portrait Gallery in London has one of the prints, though not on display. I considered myself incredibly lucky to obtain one for myself, which had turned up in a car boot sale!

Staring up at the sepia tones of the engraving, I wondered what had become of the original oil painting. What colour was her dress, her shawl? A little research proved disappointing--the picture's fate was a mystery. I could only theorise about what happened to it. One of the duke's 18th century successors was forced by debt to sell or auction some of his possessions--in Brussels, no less! In the 19th century, a great fire broke out at the family's country estate. And I'm sure there were other dispersals over time.

I assumed it was forever lost...until a week and half ago, when I found it.

The duchess was a victim of misidentification. It was that simple. Her portrait was correctly attributed to Kneller, but someone, somewhere, sometime had decided that she was a French aristocrat rather than an English duchess.

Here she is, in her lovely yellow silk dress and shimmering blue satin shawl.


And here is my engraving. As you see, John Smith felt free to make slight alterations in the shape of her face, and he softened the arrangement of her hair.


My work as a art sleuth isn't over yet. I'm still trying to obtain information--and, I hope, a study print--of that fourth portrait. The only description of it refers to her as wearing a white gown with a red mantle. I'm sure it must be stunning...I hope one day to see it!