Painted faces

In her own novels, A S Byatt has often evoked the power of portraits. Here, she examines the relatio

Portraits in words and portraits in paint are opposites, rather than metaphors for each other. A painted portrait is an artist's record, construction, of a physical presence, with a skin of colour, a layer of strokes of the brush, or the point, or the pencil, on a flat surface. A painting exists outside time and records the time of its making. It is in an important sense arrested and superficial - the word is not used in a derogatory way. The onlooker may construct a relation in time with the painter, the sitter and the recorded face, but this is a more arbitrary, less consequential time than the end-to-end reading of a book. A portrait in a novel or a story may be a portrait of invisible things - thought processes, attractions, repulsions, subtle or violent changes in whole lives, or groups of lives. Even the description in visual language of a face or body may depend on being unseen for its force. I like to say, when talking about writing, "Imagine a woman in a chair. Now imagine that she is about 30 and dark. Now imagine that she is plump, in a green velvet dress, with her breasts showing above a decollete neckline. Now give her big brown eyes, long lashes and a necklace of emeralds. Make the chair Gothic and put a burgundy-coloured curtain behind." Everyone who goes through this process will have a more and more precise visual image. They will resemble each other, but, I guess, not much. Everyone sees their own woman. Put in an emotional word - "sulky", "voluptuous", "gentle", "mean" - and there will be even more variants. Writers rely on the endlessly varying visual images of individual readers and on the constructive visualising work those readers do. This is the reason, I think, why I at least am very distressed to find publishers using photographs of real, identifiable people to represent my characters on the covers of novels. It limits the readers' imaginations. And beyond that, it has a blasphemous feeling - as though images are being stolen and made, stolen from the photographed, interposed into my world, graven images that are somehow illicit.

Painted portraits appear as objects in fictions in many ways. A novel may use a portrait as an imagined icon or unifying motif. I began to haunt the National Portrait Gallery in 1968 when I was planning a novel then provisionally entitled A Fugitive Virtue - about the 1950s, the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II, which was referred to as the New Elizabethan Age. Antonia Fraser took me to hear Flora Robson perform a verbal portrait of Elizabeth I in front of the portrait then known as the Darnley Portrait. At the time, I was teaching literature to art students, in the days of hard-edged abstraction, when the words "national" and "portrait" were both deeply suspect. My planned novel was already concerned with the differences between the art and literature of the times of the two queens. The Darnley Portrait dazzled and then obsessed me. I used the performance as a prologue to my 1953 novel. Here is the description - in the words in the novel - of the painting:

There she stood, a clear, powerful image, in her airy dress of creamy stiff silk, embroidered with golden fronds, laced with coral tassels, lightly looped with pearls. She stood and stared with the stillness and energy of a young girl. The frozen lassitude of the long white hands exhibited their fineness: they dangled or gripped, it was hard to tell which, a circular feathery fan, whose harsh whirls of darker colours suggested a passion, a fury of movement suppressed in the figure. There were other ambiguities in the portrait, the longer one stared, doublenesses that went beyond the obvious one of woman and ruler. The bright-blanched face was young and arrogant. Or it was chalky, bleak, bony, any age at all, the black eyes under heavy lids knowing and distant.

Her portraits had been treated as icons and as witches' dolls: men had died for meddling with them in various ways, such as stabbing, burning, piercing with hogs' bristles, embedding in poison.

I had been obsessed since childhood with the figure of the solitary clever woman, who avoided her mother's fate by using her wits and remaining single, separate, a virgin. I read Astraea, Frances Yates's wonderful study of the iconography of Elizabeth I, which shows her knowingly replacing the Catholic Virgin Mary with the secular Virgin Queen, whose imagery relates her to dangerous moon goddesses, Diana, Astarte, turret-crowned Cybele. I connected her to Spenser's Dame Nature, a perfect androgyne or hermaphrodite, who "hath both kinds in one". The whiteness of the face in the portrait itself called up Keats's phrase "bright-blanched", which refers to the sempiternal whiteness of the face of his undying goddess Moneta - "deathwards still progressing/To no death was that visage. It had passed/The lily and the snow" . . . The remembered painted face became an image in itself which the novel began to conjure with. I changed the title to something more iconic and more substantial - The Virgin in the Garden. My heroine already had her narrow face and red hair - but that was also rooted in secret family portraiture. Many women in my family have that narrow face, that red hair. Nothing has only one original in a fiction.

I began by writing about the portrait of Elizabeth I and my own use of its iconic qualities in The Virgin in the Garden. I'd like to end with the group of portraits of Randolph Henry Ash, assembled by Roland Michell, in Possession. Possession is a novel about what biography does not reveal. Roland's collection does not add up to a coherent knowable "character":

Roland possessed three images of Randolph Henry Ash. One, a photograph of the death mask, which was one of the central pieces in the Stant Collection of Harmony City, stood on his desk. There was a puzzle about how this bleak-browed, carved head had come into existence, since there also existed a photograph of the poet in his last sleep, still patriarchally bearded. Who had shaved him when, Roland had wondered, and Mortimer Cropper had asked in his biography, The Great Ventriloquist, without finding an answer. His other two portraits were photographic copies, made to order, of the two portraits of Ash in the National Portrait Gallery . . . One was by Manet and one was by G F Watts. The Manet had been painted when the painter was in England in 1867, and had something in common with his portrait of Zola . . . Manet's Ash was dark, powerful, with deepset eyes under a strong brow, a vigorous beard, and a look of confident private amusement . . . The portrait by Watts was mistier and less authoritative. It had been painted in 1876 and showed an older and more ethereal poet, his head rising, as is common with Watts's portraits, from a vague dark column of a body into a spiritual light.

I assembled this proliferation of images, half deliberately, to demonstrate how unsettled and partial is our image of the dead, depending on what little evidence we have. The death mask and the photographed corpse are in a sense "taken from the life" - using the same ambivalence in the phrase "taken from" that appears in the translation of Nature Morte into Still Life. They are accurate records - it pleased me to make them contradictory - but only of an absence. There is a sense in which all photographs are death masks, as Roland Barthes said so elegantly in his Camera Lucida. They show the death of the moment, if not of the human being who is taken, or caught, by the camera. The painted portraits are also, as I have said, images of their painters. My imaginary Manet contains a composed array of depicted objects, as Manet's real Zola contained prints, screen and books. The objects are extensions of the self of the sitter, part of the image of him. In Ash's case they are very carefully delineated:

There was a heap of rough geological specimens, including two almost spherical stones, a little like cannon balls, one black and one a sulphurous yellow, some ammonites and trilobites, a large crystal ball, a green glass inkwell, the articulated skeleton of a cat, a heap of books, two of which could be seen to be the Divina Commedia and Faust, and an hourglass in a wooden frame . . .

By contrast, the description of the Watts concentrates on a metaphor in the paint:

The important features of this image were the eyes, which were large and gleaming, and the beard, a riverful of silvers and creams, whites and blue-greys, resembling da Vinci's turbulences, the apparent source of light. Even in the photograph [a black and white photograph of the original painting] it shone.

What a novelist can do, which is difficult for a painter, is convey what is not, and cannot, be known about a human being. The triple portrait of Lili, in David Ebershoff's The Danish Girl, represents a painter's way of suggesting the variety of selves that can be recorded. But the painter, in a triptych or a series, remains constant - as Picasso is Picasso however many artists and models he can conceive and render. The death mask, the Watts and the Manet suggest different things. They have what Henry James required in a good renderer, solidity of specification - the colours are precise, the textures are there, even the expressions. But readers will see as many Manets, as many Wattses, as many imaginary photographs as there are readers, all connected, all different, as I said about my imaginary woman in a green dress at the beginning. For this reason - the energy which is generated by the visualised unseen, and the further energy that springs from trying to bridge gaps and reconcile or connect discrepancies in limited descriptions - a novelist, particularly a visually minded novelist, will always feel anxious, even afraid, about the portrayal of his characters by actors. In a way, an actor whose appearance is an almost perfect match for the imagined face is more uncanny and more disturbing than one who is no match and can be peeled away in the imagination. The closer the match, the harder it is to remember, to recreate in the mind, those aspects of the character's face and manners which don't coincide, or are deliberately written fluctuating and vague. A playwright will need to leave his characters open to a multitude of inhabitants, not to make their bodies precise, though Shaw always did, in his novelist's stage directions. Visual images are stronger than verbal half-images, and a good novel exploits the richness of the imprecision, of the hinted. Painting, as Patrick Heron said, is a materialist art, about the material world. The novel, however it aspires to the specificity of Zola's naturalism, works inside the head.

At the almost end of Possession Roland reconsiders his collection of portraits of Ash. He has a thought about the ambiguity of the mask which I took from one of Richard Gregory's visual riddles about whether a hollow mask protrudes or recedes. He thinks also about the poet's words, which in the case of real writers are their real selves, as much as, more than, their skin and eyes. He thinks about how the images we see, the painters who made them, are part also of those who see and read. My imaginary Manet, my imaginary Watts, my imaginary poets, are part of Roland, and they are all of course part of me.

From Portraits in Fiction by A S Byatt, published on 29 November by Chatto & Windus (£12.99)