When I first began planning a novel that would be set partly during the Second World War, it was the well-known images of the evacuation of children, the Allied withdrawal from Dunkirk and VE day that immediately came to mind. As I learnt more, though, it was the smaller stories that stuck with me, and helped this extraordinary, turbulent time become somehow more tangible.
One such story was that of the National Gallery’s Painting of the Month scheme. Most of the gallery’s collection had been moved out of harm’s way at the outbreak of hostilities, but in 1942 it was decided that each month one piece of art would be retrieved from storage and put on public display.
I was very excited when I found out that most of the paintings selected for the scheme were still on the National Gallery’s walls today. I loved the idea of the art acting like a thread over the years, across a time of war and a time of peace, and bringing two very different people together. My novel Pictures at an Exhibition tells the stories of two women – Claire, living now, and Daisy, who lived through the war. Claire comes across Daisy's letters and their two stories, their lives and loves, are set against the backdrop of some of these masterpieces.
I did a lot of research about the period and the scheme itself, reading books, watching news reels, listening to oral histories and – because the historical part of Pictures at an Exhibition is told in epistolary form – reading collections of letters. All of this helped give me a sense of how people spoke and thought at the time. I also visited the National Gallery’s archives and the Imperial War Museum’s collection of war art. This gave me the idea of making one of my characters a war artist, employed by the authorities (as many talented men and women actually were) to record his impressions of the reality of war. I felt this introduced a contrast between the often traditional art selected by the National Gallery each month, and the styles of artists of the day.
Whilst the theme of Pictures at an Exhibition is rooted in fact, I did not focus on any real-life individuals. This was largely because I wanted to be able to tell the story I had in my head, rather than someone else’s history. That said, famous war artist Henry Moore and the director of the National Gallery do make cameo appearances.
I also had to decide which of the 40 or so paintings that were displayed by the National Gallery should be described in my book. Some I chose because I liked them, others because they matched a particular emotion or event that my characters were experiencing. The book closes with a familiar and fairly modern painting, Renoir’s The Umbrellas, because (for reasons I explain in the novel), it draws together elements of the old and the new, and so in my view exemplifies art’s ability to communicate across the years.
Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson is published by Arrow.
The Umbrellas is by Renoir.