Friday, 9 March 2012


"Paint what you see, Johann, not what you think you see."

So says the court painter to his apprentice. But Johann possesses more than the power to paint a person's soul...
He can alter it.

Richard Knight
Catnip Books

THE COURT PAINTER'S APPRENTICE is a truly beautiful book that came out at the beginning of this year. You can read my review here. It is the story of Johann, a painter's apprentice, who finds that he can alter his subject's lives by making subtle changes to their portraits. But will having such power at his fingertips change Johann too? This is a haunting and evocative mystery that combines historical fiction, fairytale, the supernatural and a fascinating insight into the power of art. 

As you may be able to tell, I found it really rather fantastic. Author Richard Knight was kind enough to share some words with me. Enjoy a bit of literary inspiration for the weekend...

Where did you first get the idea for Johann’s story? 

It was a combination of ideas really. I had a ‘what if?’ idea about a portrait painter being so skilled that his talent took over and produced visibly real effects on his subjects. I think that idea was partly provoked by remembering Philip Pullman’s excellent story ‘Clockwork’. I also recalled staring at myself in the mirror one day as a 12 or 13 year old and feeling I was staring at a stranger – a kind of disembodied experience – and it got me thinking about the nature of identity and how young people are deeply involved in that struggle to find out who they are. That formed the basis for the prologue and the epilogue.

Have you always been interested in painting? What is it about Jan Van Eyck’s paintings that really intrigues you?

Yes, as an observer and no, as an artist. I wasn’t even allowed to take the GCSE course at school because I was so bad at art (or so they thought). I was dragged around plenty of art galleries as a child and I remember seeing the Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery (which is mentioned in the story) so that must have stuck with me. I was intrigued by the mirror on the back wall. I used Van Eyck in the story as a touchstone for Johann’s talent. He needed something to aspire to and historically and culturally Van Eyck was ideal, being the first artist to master oil painting and being active in the era just before Johann’s. I don’t have the technical vocabulary to talk about art and sound knowledgeable, but I just love his faces, they seem so real and full of life behind the eyes. Also he was the first artist to master the technique of building up layers of paint (which I tried to include in descriptions of Johann’s work) which gives his paintings such depth.

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

Is there one particular portrait you had in mind when writing the story?

 Not really. I researched the Ghent Altarpiece because it’s described in the story. But other portraits became important during the writing – the Arnolfini portrait because of the mirrors and the playfulness of Van Eyck, his ‘Portrait of a Man’ which is thought to be a self-portrait and his portrait of Niccolo Albergati became my personal image of Hugo. Also the Portinari portraits by Van Der Goes helped me with thinking about the different subjects Hugo and Johann painted.

Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck 

Did you enjoy researching 16th century Holland? What was the most interesting thing you discovered?

Yes, I do love researching although it always feels like lost time at the start. It’s only when the story is finished that you realise the time spent on research is worth it. I studied history at university so my background knowledge is good enough to get me started and the internet is a great resource for all sorts of things. I suppose the most interesting thing I discovered was how a portrait was put together and how time-consuming it was. I found a fantastic second-hand book called The Mirror of the Artist by Craig Harbison which was very readable and gave a good overview of the techniques at the time and how workshops were organised. There is a tension in the book between Johann and Hugo because Hugo is old-fashioned and employs craftsmen to do parts of his paintings but Johann is modern – a man of the Renaissance- and prefers to be in complete control of his art. He sees art as a personal statement.

Do you see any similarities in the role of the painter and the role of the writer in telling their subjects’ stories? And are there any difference?

Well I guess any creative act has a similarity with another. A writer uses the existing world to create non-existent characters. Somebody once said fiction is about people who don’t exist doing things that never happened, but in a sense that’s only partly correct because the characters in fiction and their actions only exist because of the world that the writer lives in and uses to create a story for them. Some creators work mostly from their imaginations (abstract painters, fantasy writers for example) whereas others are more rooted in a real world ( portrait painters, crime writers for example). I always strive for an element of both of these approaches if I can. I agree with Hugo that art must reflect the ‘truth’ of the world you see, but I think art and fiction have both moved on since then and can include the ‘unreal’ too.

Did any of the characters come from figures you’ve seen in paintings?
To be frank, no. Except, for Hugo and Magdalena I did look at lots of Renaissance portraits when trying to imagine them.

Which writers or books inspired you to become a writer?

I’ve been asked this a few times and my answer is that I have always been a writer, just not a published one. I used to imagine being a published writer from being quite small right up until the moment it happened. So although there are books and writers I love and admire hugely, it wasn’t them that spurred me on. It was just something inside me that I think comes from my family background where books and stories were really important. In the world of children’s and YA fiction my two heroes are Philip Pullman and David Almond, both of whom write so intelligently and perceptively. The writers who first inspired me to get serious about sitting down and writing something that I knew I would submit were Raymond Carver and Richard Ford when I first started writing short stories in the 1990s.

If you could time travel anywhere, where would you go?

Mmm. That’s a tricky one. Do I have to stay in the place I’m sitting now or can I move countries and continents? I’m drawn to Tudor London, Imperial Rome, Ancient Greece, the Wild West, revolutionary Russia or France. But to pick one . . . probably Ancient Greece because it was so important to everything that came after it.

And you’re only allowed one book to take with you! Which one do you pick?

I wouldn’t spend any time reading if I was propelled back in time! But as a desert island-type pick it would be something I’ve never read but think I might enjoy re-reading many times. Like Anna Karenina or Don Quixote. From children’s/YA it would be the Northern Lights trilogy in one book please.

What advice do you have for young writers?

Do it. As often as you can. And read like there’s no tomorrow. Absorb as many writers as you can. Your own style comes in time and you won’t even notice it arrive. Get trusted people to read your writing and give you feedback. Enter competitions. Find an old story and re-read it and discover that yes, actually it’s not bad, it just needs a bit of work here and there. Keep writing, even after nobody is telling you to do it anymore. In truth, I think writers don’t often need much encouragement though. They just have to write. It’s in their blood.

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