I discovered the existence of this little book back in December, and ordered it on the instant… After which it took more than a month for it to arrive – thanks to the dismal Italian post service – but it was well worth the wait. Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People– published by the National Portrait Gallery in 2011, is truly a gem.
Just imagine a museum putting together eight novelists and fourteen portraits of unknown sitters from the XVIth and XVIIth century – and commissioning short fictional character sketches…
And it is clear that John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters embraced the spirit of the project, producing a varied collection of short biographies, letters, encyclopedia entries and first person narratives either fictionally depicting or giving imaginary voice to the unknown sitters.
So in the end you get fourteen little stories, accompanied by a number of beautiful reproductions of the portraits, together with information about the portraits themselves and what is actually known and/or supposed about them, and a thought-provoking little essay about the loss, mistaking, and (in some cases) recovery of the identity of a portrait sitter, by Tarnya Cooper, the NPG’s Chief Curator.
Now is, I think, a good time to confess I have always been fascinated by portraits of “unknown” people, and like to spend time gazing at them, wondering and making up stories. I love the game, and still I find it a little sad. There used to be, many years ago in Italy, a very famous husband-and-wife team of comedians. I remember this sketch of theirs, in which they wore Renaissance costumes, and the husband was seen sitting for a portrait, while the wife scolded and bemoaned the crazy expense of hiring the top painter of the age… I think it was none other than Leonardo da Vinci – but we speak of something like thirty-five years ago, so I might be mistaken. Anyway, the husband tried to silence his spouse by the argument that it was money well spent – on immortality… To which she scoffed, and then it all faded away to a modern-day museum, with a group of visitors standing before the husband’s portrait, and.. “Leonardo da Vinci, portrait of an unknown man,” the guide announced, to further ghostly scolding from the wife.
It was played for laughs, of course – but I remember finding it incredibly sad, even as a child: the poor fellow had tried to buy himself a scantling of immortality – and missed spectacularly. I was reminded of it as I read this book, and especially Dr. Cooper’s essay. Those unknown sitters, or those who had their likeness painted, can’t have expected their names and identities to be long survived by the portraits themselves. I wonder what they would make of being turned in the object of this writerly guessing game in lieu of immortality…
So in the end Imagined Lives is a lovely little book that offers great writing, beautiful art, an intelligent game, some melancholy and much food for thought. It’s a good deal to pack between two covers… Well done, Portrait Gallery!