The National Portrait Gallery, London: a Cloud of Masters and Witnesses

At the National Portrait Gallery recently, as I wandered through the Victorian and Twentieth Century and Contemporary Galleries, I realised that I was surrounded by all the most amazing people who have moved or inspired me or touched my heart, during my lifetime.

The National Portrait Gallery, London
The National Portrait Gallery, London

The people whose faces I gazed at included preRaphaelite artists John Waterhouse and Arthur Hughes;

The Lady of Shallot by John Waterhouse
The Lady of Shallot by John Waterhouse
April Love by Arthur Hughes
April Love by Arthur Hughes

novelists Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan DoyleCharles Dickens, Oscar Wilde,  and Jerome K Jerome (all of whom have written novels which are on my most-loved list); inspirational writer and thinker John Ruskin. And amongst the women, I find the Bronte sisters,

Painting of the Brontë sisters
Painting of the Brontë sisters

Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Malala and Queen Victoria: yes a mixed bunch, but each one of them has inspired me in her own individual way by her courage, or her defiance of convention, or her spirit or her genius.

It is truly a moving experience to gaze upon the faces of each of these people, and to reflect upon the impact each one of them has had on my life. Some of them look very unexceptional; others have been portrayed in a way which truly conveys their individuality. But what all have in common is this: they are like a cloud of witnesses, a gallery of masters who have found their way into my heart and mind over the generations and seasons of my life, through something they’ve written, or painted, or thought, or expressed.

To gaze upon their faces, even imperfectly rendered – for how can I tell the accuracy or the insight of the artist, having never encountered the sitter in person – is to be deeply touched.

The Classic Children’s Author: A Sad Person Who Creates an Amazing Character Loved by Millions?

The other day I watched Saving Mr Banks with my film club.

Saving Mr Banks Poster
Saving Mr Banks Poster

Later we had much to discuss about author P.L. Travers and her difficult relationship with Walt Disney throughout his quest to get her to sell him the film rights to her Mary Poppins books.

During our discussion we considered the curious fact that many great children’s authors do have a tragedy in their background, often the death of a parent or a sibling which created trauma. In fact one of our number, who is herself a prolific traditionally published children’s author, reported that she attended a children’s writing conference, and one of her readers said to her: “I’d love to be a successful children’s author, but I don’t think I can, because I haven’t experienced the death of a parent when I was young.”

As I thought about P.L. Travers and her enduring pain about the death of her father, which fed into her character George Banks, and led her to create the magical figure of Mary Poppins who would somehow redeem him, I thought of other great children’s authors who also wrote immortal fiction out of their pain and tragedy; or out of their own inner demons.

We can immediately think of JM Barrie and Peter Pan; of AA Milne and Christopher Robin; and of course Lewis Carroll and Alice.

Lewis Carroll quote
Lewis Carroll quote

Several weeks ago I listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme about Lewis Carroll, and the evidence of his unhealthy interest in little girls, and how he strove to control and manage this (with greater or lesser success at different times). It was also interesting that his own family destroyed certain personal documents to save his future reputation, including vital diaries  and letters written around the time he was intensely involved with Alice and her sisters.

As I was listening to this, I found myself reflecting on what Lewis Carroll had created out of his own personal demons.    Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass will be remembered and loved for as long as there are children around to read stories, and will always testify to Charles Dodgson’s supple genius, making the little girl who inspired him immortal.

A second element of the story is the real Alice herself, and how in her subsequent life she handled this unlooked-for literary  ‘immortality’. Again there is a strong element of sadness there. The older Alice, perhaps, was haunted by a feeling that she had not lived her life in a way truly worthy of the sassy little girl she had once been, who had inspired a creative genius to create a classic of children’s literature.

Life changes, people change, but one thing does not change: the power of the creative imagination.