Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Art of Stories - Lucy Coats


It's the final week of the J.W. Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy, and if you can possibly get there, you should go before it closes. The pre-Raphaelites are in vogue now--the BBC's recent series Desperate Romantics have made them very popular indeed. Waterhouse is a pre-Raphaelite painter, one of the lesser known ones, despite his painting The Lady of Shalott being one of the most popular at Tate Britain. And what has he got to do with children's books, you ask? In my opinion, the most important thing. He is a bringer to life of stories--in particular myths, which are my own special field of interest.

Last week I visited the exhibition in the company of two teenagers, one my daughter, both studying Art for GCSE. You might think that this was a fatal combination. But it wasn't. Personally, I am not a great traipser round galleries, being prone to mental indigestion if I see too much all at once. That cliched old tourist joke of 'If it's Tuesday, it must be Amsterdam (or Florence or Rome)' fills me with utter horror. I don't want to see all the great art in a city all together in one day. But the Waterhouse was small, intimate and extremely well hung, with interesting information in each room--yet not too much of it to overwhelm. What I loved most, though, was the pictures. Which is the point of an exhibition, really. It was like coming face to face with old friends in beautiful new dresses which somehow also dressed them in meanings I hadn't noticed before. I wandered round in a daze of happiness. Here was Circe in several guises. Here Ophelia, here poor Echo being ignored by Narcissus. And here is Ulysses in a boat, tied to the mast, his men rowing for dear life with their ears plugged with wax. But what are these strange winged beings around him? Not the Sirens, surely. But yes, they are--except that Waterhouse has mixed them up with the Harpies, and painted them as such. I didn't mind at all--it makes the picture visually very powerful, and I suspect that many people would not have noticed. It takes a myth freak to do that.

My teenagers adored the rich colours, the beautiful young things, the sumptuous velvets and silks and tapestries. But what gave me immense satisfaction was being able to tell them who everyone was, and the stories behind them. To have your daughter's sophisticated 15 year-old best friend say to you in awed tones (yes, they were awed, Emily!), 'But how do you KNOW all this amazing stuff?' was immensely gratifying, (not to say satisfying). And I like to think that perhaps my storytelling skills have made those pictures more alive and three-dimensional than they already are for at least one person--and maybe even two. My daughter admitted afterwards that even she found it all a lot more interesting with my wittering. And that's the biggest compliment of all for a storyteller--and the hardest to achieve.

You can find Lucy's website HERE and her own Quite Interesting writer's blog HERE.

11 comments:

bookwitch said...

Is that you, Lucy?

Lucy Coats said...

Well, you might be surprised if you looked at a picture of me 25 years ago! But no. Sadly it's Circe presenting the cup to Ulysses.

Katherine Langrish said...

I haven't seen the picture, Lucy - but might the winged creatures have been the Harpies?

I was there on Thursday, but not to see the Waterhouse (which was just as well as there was a whopping queue). I wanted to pick up a catalogue for the Kuniyoshi exhibition I missed in June. An early 19th C Japanese artist, he too was a wonderful storyteller - they call him 'the father of manga' and you can see why if you go to this link: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/kuniyoshi/

Lee said...

OT but worth posting:

Via BoingBoing, a Braille project which may interest some of you:

http://www.boingboing.net/2009/09/13/young-adult-writers.html

Lucy Coats said...

Yes, K. Harpies. Typing too quick for own good and brain scrambled. Have changed!

Katherine Langrish said...

How well I know the feeling!
I wish I'd seen the exhibition, though!

Lucy Coats said...

It was worth it. Shame you missed out.

thea said...

FABULOUS POST!!!

Inspiring too to realise the magic potential in story-telling...

thea.
xx

(www.forthevisionaries.tumblr.com)

Anne Rooney said...

Oh, I really wanted to go that exhibition - has it finished? Damn! Lovely post, Lucy - thankyou.

Nick Green said...

I always felt sorry for Circe. Every time she meets a nice man, he turns into a pig.

Lucy Coats said...

Oh Nick. Circe is not the only one. Remember Anthony Browne's 'Piggybook'? It's a common problem--or so I am told! (Yes, my tongue is firmly in my cheek here....)