I arrived back home to the writing retreat in Portugal last night after hours travellling. It’s funny how firends say, It’s only a two hour flight but no one seems to take into account all the connections between. Still, it’s always interesting to swap the calm and tranquil scene around the retreat for the frenetic rush and tear of urban life. The noise and smell of a city always strikes me most forcibly but being on the move can have a powerful effect on one’s creatvity and there are countless images jostling about in my brain which I hope to access soon.

Ther are ideas for short stories and poems and even a short play, whether they will ever get written is another matter but I have returned filled with all kinds of sensations. I like the urban architecture and  magnificant city trees which grace the capital -mostly London Plane trees which have been growing for  many years now and are stunning specimens. I am amazed at how green the cityscpe has become in recent years. I even took note of the edible bus stop which produces rhubarb and cabbage and all kinds of assorted treats surrounding a place where people automatically spend time. The whole guerilla gardening movement is an inspiration in itself.

A trip to the National Portrait Gallery always gives me food for thought and I particularly enjoyed the photographs, but one small exibition really caught my imagination, Imagined Lives Portraits of Unknown People. Here is the blurb from the site:

This display looks in detail at fourteen portraits of people whose identities are uncertain. Dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these portraits were once thought to depict famous sitters including Queen Elizabeth I, the young pretender to the throne Lady Arabella Stuart, and the poet and courtier Sir Thomas Overbury. These identities, however, have long since been disputed. New research, undertaken in part by MA students from the University of Bristol, is presented alongside the portraits. The likelihood of previously given identities is assessed and, in some cases, new identities are suggested. http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/display/2011/imagined-lives-portraits-of-unknown-people.php

My mind certanly went wandering and I enjoyed the portrait chosen for the publicity materials (see above) especially and thought about portraits in general as a consequence. I thought also about a writing exercise where one imagines looking at a portrait of one’s own. Think about how oyu would like to be portrayed, what objects you might have around you which might give hints to a viewer in the distant future about who you were and what you did. Consider the artist and why you might commission them and then describe the picture in detail.

If this feels uncomfortable then imagine  a portrait and describe the sitter, then consider their reaction to the portrait, what was the sitting like? Did they have any interaction with the artists? Did the portrait have any unintended effect? Was it destined for a specific audience?Did someone commission it and for what reason? The list could go on and makes a neat starting point for a character sketch or even a fictive scenario. Have a go and see where your portrait and imagination leads you.

Certainly this subject matter inspired Robert Browning and there’s a malevolence in this piece I have always found disturbing. Here is his poem entitled

My Last Duchess

FERRARA.

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fr Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fr Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Fr Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
“Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
“Must never hope to reproduce the faint
“Half-flush that dies along her throat:” such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
“Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
“Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

– Robert Browning
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