Regarding the making of art, I have no abilities in this direction at all. Rendered helpless at the sight of a white plate, I resorted to polka dots at those paint-your-own-pottery places where I used to take my daughter. But I do know something about the auction world, and this became one of the seeds for this novel.
In the 1990s, I worked at Christie’s auction house in New York, back when it was still at 502 Park Avenue. On days when the weather was fair, I’d walk from my apartment on the Upper West Side across Central Park, past the store A La Vieille Russie, which always featured exquisite antiques and objets de vertu in the windows, to the employee entrance. I worked behind the scenes in the marketing department, buying advertising space for Christie’s in a broad array of magazines, newspapers, and specialty publications. And what did I have to do in order to buy effectively? I had to read about art and auctions, extraordinary collections and shocking scandals, outrageous wealth and daring thefts.
(Insert back-of-hand-to-forehead gesture and a melodramatic sigh.)
My fascination with art is partly because nearly every piece of art, and particularly it seems every painting, has a story—because often it brings together so many people and events. Take the painting of Emma, Lady Hamilton, by Elisabeth Vigeé-LeBrun, which Christie’s sold in 1801. You have Elisabeth herself—French daughter of a portraitist and a hairdresser, who entered a convent for six years, survived a wretched step-father, and had her studio seized because she was painting without a license. She painted hundreds of portraits including dozens of Marie Antoinette and her family. Then you have Emma—a beautiful model and actress and the muse for the portrait painter George Romney. Born Amy Lyon, the daughter of a blacksmith, she worked as a maid to actresses at the Drury Lane theater and also worked an attendant at the aforementioned Temple of Health and Hymen. She had several affairs with wealthy men, but she was best known, however for being the mistress of Admiral Horatio Nelson (yes, that Nelson). The hero of Trafalgar abandoned his wife for Emma, and when he learned about the portrait of her, he arranged to purchase it privately before it even reached the sales floor, for 300 pounds, saying, “If it had cost me 300 drops of blood I would have given it with pleasure.”
To me, the painting’s very frame is like a window; the captured image suggests worlds and people, their passions and stories beyond and behind what we first see.
I realize I like the mystery of it.
Check back for more blogs about the art and auction world in 1875 London.