Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Morning Walk

The Morning Walk by Thomas Gainsborough

In The Last Killiney, a painting serves as the heroine's wake-up call and cue that she has lived a past life in the eighteenth century:

Hanging in one of the many alcoves of the National Gallery, it had been a life-sized double portrait by John Singleton Copley that had stopped Ravenna dead in her tracks. Like many of its time, it featured a couple in fancy dress walking their dog. Never mind that the woman looked exactly like Ravenna; no, that wasn’t even the most disturbing thing about the picture. It was the husband in the portrait who had jarred her heart most. Just the sight of him had brought out an irrational response, a terrible sadness defying explanation. She’d felt friendship and loathing for him, each emotion as strong as the other. This was not the boy from Disneyland. This was not the Irishman. This new man, with his elegant, careful pose, was someone Ravenna had pitied, not loved.

Resonance, that’s the best way to describe it. It’d been as if there were a bridge between paint and flesh, a portal between that life and this one. Ravenna ached with misery as she read the picture’s title. “Lord and Lady Launceston, or ‘The Evening Walk,’ 1788. Wedding portrait of William and Elizabeth Hallett, donated by the Hallett family of Wolvesfield, Devon, 1840.”

In the original draft of The Last Killiney, this painting had instead been a very famous picture: The Morning Walk by Thomas Gainsborough. This huge double portrait had indeed jarred me during a trek through the National Gallery in one of my earlier vacations in London. It called to me the same way Copley's picture -- which doesn't exist, by the way -- called to Ravenna, alerting her that something about the painting applied to and resonated with her deepest soul. In my case, it reminded me of my past life as Mary Carter, who met her husband, Thomas, in the late 1780s -- the same era in which Gainsborough's portrait was made.

I later changed the picture in the story to a fictional one, with John Singleton Copley as the artist, as it turns out Gainsborough couldn't have painted a portrait in 1793 -- he was dead by then. But the names of the sitters remain in the story: Elizabeth and William Hallett. And, funny enough, the inspiration for William Hallett, or Christian as he's called in The Last Killiney, was the actor James Spader. Can you spot any resemblance between Spader and Hallett's portrait? In my mind, I'm sure they look exactly alike. :)

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