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Thimbles of Bravery: Art, Animals and the Act of Creating Character

One of my favourite modern works of fiction is The Goldfinch, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel written by Donna Tartt. With art and animals (and even art about animals!) there’s no mystery why The Goldfinch spoke to me so deeply, and you may already be familiar with the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius that gives the book its title. Slight yet significant, this artwork is very close to my heart. Although its official residence is in the Hague, I was incredibly fortunate to view it in person when it visited Scotland in 2016. With luck I hope I’ll get the chance to see The Goldfinch again during my lifetime, but I suspect this will be the only occasion when my number one painting actually flies out to my homeland!

Towards the end of Donna Tartt’s novel (don’t worry – no spoiler alert needed!) her central character Theo reflects on the tiny bird at the heart of this huge story: ‘a tiny, stand-alone masterpiece, unique of all its kind’. The Goldfinch was painted almost four hundred years earlier, by a young and promising artist of the Dutch Golden Age who died tragically in the very same year it was completed. Yet even in the twenty-first century, Theo finds himself moved by the quiet determination we can observe in the bird’s expression. ‘Trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching.’ If you study the painting closely, you will notice that the goldfinch is kept on a short gold chain.

‘It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery,’ Theo considers, ‘bewildered by noise (as I imagine), distressed by smoke, barking dogs, cooking smells, teased by drunkards and children, tethered to fly on the shortest of chains. Yet even a child can see its dignity: thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.’

Looking into its eyes, we can believe that the goldfinch accepts its fate without being resigned to it, despite the suffering it endures. And perhaps there is a message here for all of us - animal or human, ancient or contemporary - as we face the challenges that life can bring. When Theo wonders precisely how the artist managed to depict the bird and its miniature glimmer of courage, he mentions reading about the renowned Edwardian portrait artist John Singer Sergent. Legend has it that Sergent tried to find the animal inside his human sitters, in order to capture the essence of who they were: from ‘the long foxy noses and pointed ears of heiresses [to] rabbit-toothed intellectuals, leonine captains of industry [and] plump owl-faced children.’ Equally for Theo, ‘it’s hard not to see the human in the finch. Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another.’

Any idea that bridges the gap between humans and other animals – fostering greater respect and compassion for both – strikes the right chord with me, and I’ve been reflecting on this topic as I deepen the characterization of my own novel. For Pentimenti, I want my descriptions to be as consistent and convincing as possible: encompassing movement, voice, actions and reactions. I’ve found that to consider my characters in terms of what animal best represents them – just as Sargent and Theo try to do – can provide a very interesting shortcut towards distilling their temperaments, and the visual qualities that might reflect them. From a slick, powerful young man whose muscles coil like a python, to a hot headed fellow who acts like the proverbial bull in a china shop, this exercise helps me to conjure them in my mind’s eye and grasp the subtler qualities of character that are vital to painting an accurate picture. What animal do you think you would be? After all, as the protagonist of The Goldfinch ponders, ‘every great painting is really a self-portrait’. Could the same be said for fiction ('great' or otherwise!)? And whether animal or human, can we match the courage of a little chained bird – can we look life in the eye with our very own thimble of bravery?

Line of the Week (my favourite line I've written this week - although whether it makes the final cut will be a different story!)

'Wellingtons: so clean she can see a string bean version of herself reflected up from his toes.'

Bookmark (what I've been reading when I need a break from writing - otherwise known as often!)

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. Now, you know that I love my Hardy: for me, reading his work is like going for a country walk without actually leaving the house! The plot of Greenwood Tree is light and playful, but I laughed out loud at the pinprick sharpness of his social observations: a toddler starts to cry, is consoled by fascination at his face in the mirror when crying, and then forgets and starts to cry all over again! I also enjoyed the fact that the book has four sections connected to the four seasons of the year. If you’ve checked out my Paintings page, you’ll be familiar with this as a creative theme I already know and love!

Ps. I think if I was an animal, perhaps I would be a bird too (although I’m certainly not as elegant as Fabritius’s Goldfinch). I’m cautious, but can be a little flighty, and I have big eyes, skinny limbs and a slightly fluffy middle!

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