Use your imagination

When I first came across this book, browsing in the National Portrait Gallery shop, I loved the idea behind it.

Take fourteen of the gallery’s 16th and 17th century portraits, and ask eight renowned authors to write about the individuals portrayed. Afterall, the portrait (in literary terms) is a written description or analysis of something or someone.

What makes this project more intriguing, and gives a free reign to the authors, is that these paintings – acquired for the collection between 1858 and 1971 as identified people – have since all proved not to be portraits of those named individuals.

Interestingly, the face on the cover of the book – given originally as Mary, Queen of Scots is still being used with that attribution – see a recent article in History Extra on the 9 worst monarchs in history.

As the art historian Tarnya Cooper points out in her essay in the book ‘Did my hero look like that? Identifying sitters in historic British portraits’:

Once a picture loses its link with a family collection or an             identifying label, the stitching of those details back together         proves virtually impossible.

    So each of these sitters in the portraits are now unknown, mystery people.

    Perhaps the portrait is the only document which remains of a past life.

All we are left with is the picture within the frame.

    An individual presenting a pose, their face and expression, what the sitter is wearing, which in these examples are the fashion of the 16th and 17th centuries.

A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter, which successfully engages the subject with the viewer. It creates a sense of intimacy between the sitter and the viewer, even though, as in these pictures, the portrait was painted hundreds of years before being seen and studied by each of the authors.

The eight authors are John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters.

As you would expect of such acclaimed authors they each successfully rose to the challenge of creating fictional stories about the sitters. 

Ranging from fictional letters and diaries, and imagined mini biographies each story tells an aspect of a fictional life of one of the portrait sitters.

If you can, do read this book, I recommend it.

  • I’ll also use this project as a basis for a writing exercise the next time I visit an art gallery.


  • I’ll find a portrait that I’m attracted to, study it in detail and possibly make notes about it. Then I’ll create a short story about the sitter, whether he or she is named or not.


  • I’ll let you know which portrait inspired me and may even showcase the story on the blog.

Why not use your imagination and do the same sometime?

Do please let me know if this works for you, and I’d love to know which portrait inspired you.