Recently, I’ve been searching for ‘affordable’ illustrations online. I’m working on creating a dedicated reading and writing space; ‘A Room of One’s Own’ as Virginia Woolf put it. This, I hope, will include a library wall, a wing-backed reading chair, a proper desk, and a wall dedicated to book-related art.
My budget for this artwork isn’t huge. But that doesn’t mean I’m not having fun searching for suitable pieces. I’ve been amazed at the life-stories of some of the artists, and have also come across some ‘unaffordable’ artwork, that literally makes my heart beat faster. The work of Tom Lovell (1909-1997) is a case in point.
Tom was an American illustrator who, during his long career, painted everything from historical scenes to romantic images for women’s magazines. He was known for the exhaustive research he conducted into historical events he was asked to paint, and for the attention to detail in all his illustrations. For me, his paintings are far more than scenes from a story—they’re entire stories in their own right, and so vibrant that it would be easy to reimagine them into completely new plot lines.
As an example of what I mean; The Tom Lovell painting above was shared by someone in an online group, with a comment attached saying that she felt sure someone from the group would be able to come up with a vignette for it… To say I was immediately ‘on it’ would be an understatement. I spotted the painting/post at the beginning of my evening meal, grabbed a notebook and pen, and by the end of the meal I had a passable vignette that just needed the odd tweak. The whole thing, including edits, took about an hour.
The first thing I did though was to really look at the painting. Tom Lovell himself said: "I consider myself a storyteller with a brush. I try to place myself back in imagined situations that would make interesting and appealing pictures. I am intent on producing paintings that relate to the human experience.” With this in mind, I tried to figure out a plausible ‘imagined situation’ which could have resulted in this particular picture.
What struck me first was the pallet of colours he’d used. Apart from the bright scarlet of the woman’s lips, the check of her shirt and threads in the carpet, everything else seems oddly muted. The woman kneeling on the carpet looks relatively young, but her hair appears to be grey. Also, the two women are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum; one is eerily calm and detached in her body language, the other openly distressed. I began to make assumptions about the reasons for this—until I finally had my vignette:
The sound of Annabel’s sobs saturated the air around them. As Mary’s hand stroked across her sister’s hair, the tips of her fingers memorised its feel, and she breathed in its familiar, strawberry-tinged fragrance, even as she prayed for a similar release. But the sorrow within her had no voice. It had taken on the density of stone, weighing her down, and encasing her heart inside a fortress of unnatural calm.
Perhaps that was only right? She was, after all, the elder sibling, and Annabel had never been one to rein in her emotions. It would be unfair to ask it of her now.
Mary knew that if they were to have any hope of getting through this, then she would need to stay in control. Whatever her feelings, they could not be acknowledged; not yet.
She needed to be strong—just like the slats at her back, she realised; grateful for the hard wooden seat that had become her only support.
Her throat began to ache, and the world seemed suddenly dull. Scarlet highlights, woven into her clothes, and scattered across soft furnishings, were all that caught her eye; appearing almost too violent, in a view where every other colour had faded to shades of grey and brown.
Our parents are gone…dead. That was the fact continuously circling through Mary’s conscious mind. And layered beneath this thought was the knowledge that, with them, all hope of a settled and predictable future had also died. What options remained?
She continued to stroke Annabel’s hair, allowing herself to grow ever more distant from the dark, chaotic emotions flowing from her sister’s tear-wracked body. Mary was the one who needed to organise their lives. It was up to her.
The house would have to be sold, of course. It was a family home and far too big for them, even if they both lived here. Then there was the furniture. Much of it was antique, and a luxury they could no longer afford. Thankfully, it should appeal to both trade and private buyers. If they were careful, there would be enough money to see Annabel through her final years at private school. And if she attained her predicted grades, there was a good chance she’d be offered help, through scholarships, for university…
Turning her head slightly, Mary’s eyes rested on the Georgian chest-on-chest that had been their father’s pride and joy. The sight of its aged mahogany, the colour almost glowing beneath layers of lovingly applied beeswax, threatened to shatter the wall she had so carefully built—to set free the waves of sharp-edged grief that tore at her mind for release.
But that must come later. Now she must plan… for both their sakes.
Of course, the original scene was probably nothing like the one I came up with—and other writers would likely imagine something entirely different when presented with the same visual prompt…but that’s the point.
A talented illustrator can create work that not only captures the scene they’ve been employed to turn into art, but also gives others a flash of inspiration that can lead to even more stories.
That is why I wanted to write this blog, and applaud the visual journey that all illustrators take us on, as both readers and writers.
It would seem that creativity breeds creativity—in a strangely satisfying cycle.