The Beauty Within – Behind the Scenes
The Armstrong Family Tree, 1828
The inspiration for writing a heroine who was a mathematician was sparked when I read Benjamin Woolley’s biography of Lord Byron’s only legitimate child, Ada. Estranged from her husband almost immediately after her marriage, Byron’s wife Annabella was terrified that her daughter might have inherited her father’s wild temperament, and introduced a strict regime of formal studies, including philosophies based on reason and logic, in an attempt to counter any such tendencies. My heroine was born thirteen years before Ada, but the two have read many of the same textbooks and share an acquaintance in Charles Babbage, whose counting machine is credited with being the progenitor of the computer.
The idea of having Cressie write a mathematical ‘theory’ of beauty which mirrored the technique which Giovanni used in his portraits came from two sources. I first came across William Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’ when I took an arts foundation course with the Open University. Jenny Uglow’s excellent biography of the artist (William Hogarth, a Life and a World) taught me a bit more on the subject, which I filed away, vaguely thinking that it might come in useful someday. Then, in a recent visit to Hampton Court with one of my sisters (sisters do tend to play a vital role in my life and my books) I saw Peter Lely’s paintings of the ‘Windsor Beauties’ and was much struck by the theory that he’d actually painted each of the individual women using a sort of ‘template’ of beauty in order for the portraits to be more acclaimed. It was here, in Hampton Court, that the idea for Giovanni’s side of the story was born.
At the time Giovanni was painting, ready-mixed oils would have been unavailable. He may have made his own pigments, but would most likely have ordered them from a catalogue and mixed them himself. Much of the technical detail of his craft I gleaned from reading about the English artist, Turner. Giovanni’s travelling box of oils is actually based on the one found in Turner’s studio. There are ‘models’ for the three paintings which Giovanni does of Cressie: ‘Lady Cressida’ is based on one by the portraitist Thomas Lawrence; ‘Mr Brown’ takes its inspiration from Goya; and ‘Cressie’ is inspired by Goya’s famous painting ‘The Naked Maja’, reputedly the first portrait to depict pubic hair. Though Giovanni precedes the Impressionists by some years, I’ve tried to show his artistic journey from the glossy, idealised style of portraiture popular during the Regency to the more ‘impressionistic’ style which took hold towards the end of the 19th Century.
Finally, for those who are interested, a few historical facts and figures and slight historical liberties I have taken. Though it was not exactly common, there is a precedent for Giovanni’s father, Count Fancini, making his illegitimate son his heir. Giulio de’ Medici was the Earl of Florence’s natural son, for example. Lord Armstrong’s trip to Russia to discuss the problem of Greek independence was actually made by the Duke of Wellington in 1826 and not 1828. Killellan Manor is based on Pollock House in Glasgow which lies within the country park housing the amazing Burrell Collection, and which is very familiar territory for me. There is no whispering gallery in the cellar there, that particular piece of architecture was inspired by New York’s Grand Central Terminus.