Inspiration & Self Publishing

DANCING AT D'AVENCOURT

AFTER MIDNIGHT MASS, FIFTEENTH CENTURY

The following research was carried out during ‘lockdown’ occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, when non-essential businesses were closed and many of their staff were working from home. This explains why it was so difficult to make contact in some instances.

My ninth novel, Dancing at D’Avencourt, has been inspired by what is to me a fascinating and beautiful painting by George Henry Boughton, R.A. I own a framed print of it, which I found in some antique shop, I don’t remember which, years ago. Pasted on the back of the picture are the following details:

“From the picture in the collection of W.K. D’Arcy, Esq.

Size of canvas 50 by 96 inches.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1897.

This important work by the painter shows a congregation coming away from midnight mass in some Continental city in the fifteenth century. The eye is at once attracted to the lady of high birth, slender in form, youthful and elegantly clad, who is stepping lightly over the snow-covered ground on her return to her home. Torch-bearers make sure of her way, and by her side is an elderly attendant, while groups of respectful and interested spectators mark their sense of her importance. The rest of the congregation, who follow her through the spacious doorway, are all in quaint and picturesque costumes, that give in themselves a beauty and interest to the work, apart from the effect of the massive cathedral walls and the cold midnight air. The charm of the Mediaevalism of the scene is the attribute in the picture sought, and most successfully attained, by the painter.”

My print, which measures 10½ by 6 inches, was framed by Wilfrid Coates of 25, Fawcett Street, Sunderland, who advertised himself as a Fine Art Dealer and High Class Picture Frame Maker & Gilder.

Wikipedia has the following information about Mr. D’Arcy:

William Knox D'Arcy was one of the principal founders of the oil and petrochemical industry in Persia. Concession to explore, obtain, and market oil, natural gas, asphalt, and ozokerite was given to him and the concession known as the D’Arcy Concession in Iran.

Born: 11 October 1849, Newton Abbot

Died: 1 May 1917, Middlesex

Spouse: Elena Birkbeck (m. 1872)

Education: Westminster School

Organisations founded: BP, National Iranian Oil Company

On contacting the Royal Academy, I discovered that they had no knowledge or information about the painting’s present whereabouts. 

So I wrote to the head office of BP in St. James’s Square, London, asking if the painting was hanging in their board room, and received a most helpful reply by email from Mr. Paul Erwood of the Group Press Office, to whom my letter had been passed:

“I’ve done some digging around on your behalf, to see where the painting is and whether we could be of help.

The original oil painting is owned as part of the Baker/Pisano collection out of New York, but has found its way into the archives of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.”

I contacted the Smithsonian and discovered that what they possess is a small study of the finished painting measuring ‘only’ 18½ x 36 ins.

They pointed me in the direction of the Heckscher Museum of New York, which had included the original in a catalogue of an exhibition held in 1983, so I contacted them.

Before receiving a reply, I obtained a copy of the Catalogue mentioned above. It did not contain an illustration of the finished painting but of the study, which is nothing like the final painting but includes elements of it.

I came to the conclusion that there is only one such study and not two and it is now at the Smithsonian Museum.

 

I then received an email from the Heckscher, telling me what I had already found out. They do not know where the original is.

So I wrote to Philip Mould of Fake or Fortune? TV fame, to ask if he has any ideas where I should search next. After sending a letter, phoning, sending an email and phoning again, one of their staff pointed me in the direction of Bridgeman Images of London. They replied to my email, suggesting I got in touch with M and J Duncan art dealers, whose website records the painting as SOLD but no date or purchaser given. I emailed twice and then wrote to Duncan’s to see if they could help.

Success! A gentleman from M & J Duncan rang me on a Saturday morning, having just received my letter but not the two emails, as the company is in ‘lockdown’ because of the coronavirus pandemic.

He told me that he is the agent who sold the painting a few years ago. Obviously, he is not allowed to tell me the purchaser or the price paid but said it is now in a private collection and not on public display. Such a pity!

I have let everyone who contacted me know the outcome of my search and the Heckscher Museum say they will add the information to their file.

In this process, I have learned a little about the art world, and have discovered that the professional people who work there have been unfailingly courteous and helpful.

 

And I still have my framed print which, from the look of the pasted label on the back, may be contemporary with the painting’s 1897 exhibition at the Royal Academy. To try to establish this, I am now researching the framer. One fact I have discovered is that he went out of business in the 1920s.

Am I being too fanciful in thinking my print could be the only one in existence?

 

THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE & THE BRON BOOKS

For some time, the plough had been turning up Roman coins and pottery on this south-facing field between Beedon village and Stanmore, on top of the Berkshire downs north of Newbury. Local historian, Victor Pocock, organised a field walk and sufficient artefacts were picked up to warrant an exploratory dig.

To cut a long story short, Vic and his various teams worked on the site, with the permission of farmer John Gent, over a period of several decades. During that time, about a thousand bronze coins were found, as well as a couple of gold coins, a unique fish brooch (the sign of Christian activity), half a Medusa medallion, a dog skeleton, a ring and other jewellery, quern stones, loom weights, Samian ware (pottery of a high standard) as well as clay pottery that included several very large bowls that were broken but pieced together again, 70 tons of burnt flints, over 50 baby skeletons.

As there were not sufficient post holes to indicate a village, it is now thought that the site was a market place or a religious site (hence the gold coins) with people just passing through, perhaps on their way to the Ridgeway, a couple of miles to the north.

The site has now been closed and turned back to farmland. Modern thinking is that whatever is in the ground should be left there for future generations to find with their search equipment, without having to dig the ground.

At present, the finds and other interesting information gleaned from the site are being catalogued and the most interesting artefacts will be donated to Newbury Museum. The burnt flints have been reburied.

We do not know why the site was eventually abandoned and the village rebuilt half a mile away down the valley. It may be that the water source dried up, or there was plague. I have set the village on fire but there was no sign of fire in reality.

The parish church in Beedon is dated 1220 and there are Roman tiles embedded in the flint walls, so the people took the sensible course and raided the old for the new.

SKELETONS

In Roman times, babies were of little value and were found buried all over the site in pits, post holes and trenches. They had been premature, still born and new born.

I was scraping out the side of a pit one day when I found what I thought was the pin at the back of a brooch. I called Vic over to show him and he said, “That’s not part of a brooch, it’s a baby’s rib bone”. I continued to scrape and uncovered the rest of the skeleton.

Only one adult skeleton has been found on the site, lying in a crouched position in a shallow grave, with no sign of foul play. We don’t know where they buried their adult dead or whether they left them out on stretchers for the birds to pick clean. Perhaps a graveyard has yet to be found.

BURNT FLINTS

These were used to heat water. Large flints (natural to the site) were placed in the fire then dropped into water to heat it.

During a coach ride south after an Alaskan cruise, the driver informed us that we were passing through land that belonged to the Stoney Indians. He said, “They were called Stoney Indians because they used to put stones into the fire then drop them into water to heat it.” Of course, I told him that we were using the same method in Britain thousands of years ago. I was telling this story to a visitor to my bookstall and she said, "My mother used to do that when the electricity was cut off during the war."

THE FISH BROOCH

A bronze fish brooch was found in the plough layer. The outline of the green fish stands proud of its red background. It is similar to another found in Kent, and four or five others of differing designs have been discovered in the south of England.

The fish was adopted as a Christian emblem.

THE MEDUSA MEDALLION

Part of a bronze Medusa’s head in a circular frame was found with a metal detector.   The head showed an elongated eye and deeply grooved hair, probably depicting writhing snakes.   It was broken but could have been part of a harness decoration.  

THE SITE AS AN INSPIRATION FOR THE BRON BOOKS

I was driving home one evening in the wind and rain and, on passing the site, wondered what it was like to be living there in Roman times without central heating and double glazing. I decided that the best way to find out would be to write about it. The first few chapters took a long time because of all the research I had to do – what did they wear? What jewellery? What were their beliefs? What did they eat? What did they do all day? What were their houses like and what sort of furniture? And so on. However, I soon got into the swing of their life style and it became second nature.

RESEARCH

Research is much easier these days with the help of Google, which takes away the necessity of visiting libraries and bookshops.

Research can be a great distraction (such a lot of interesting information that has nothing to do with what I am looking for! How about all those advertisements in old newspapers?!) so I soon learned to conduct research as I write, because I don't know what exact information I need until then.

For Part II, this included spending an afternoon in a blacksmith's forge, where I helped to make an ornamental log poker, of which I am very proud! The shaft should have had many more twists in it than it has because the blacksmith and I were chatting so much that the iron got too cold to work!

He told me that in former days, the young ladies of the village who wished to get pregnant would go to the smithy and drink from the quenching tank (where forged items were plunged in to cool them down), and this often did the trick. This could have been because the water contained iron and, if the would-be mother was anaemic, it could cure her condition – at least, that was the blacksmith’s story and who was to say otherwise?!

SELF PUBLISHING

As I did not receive an offer of publication from a mainstream publisher for Part I, though some positive comments accompanied rejection letters, I decided to self publish. At my age, I could not afford to wait around. In earlier days, it was considered good practice to send an MS out to one agent or publisher at a time, and some of them took seven months to reply, if they replied at all. Nowadays, with the email facility, it is acceptable to send to several agents at a time, as long as you let them know that is what you are doing. I have continued to self publish, pleased that readers are enjoying my novels and keep asking for more.

First, though, I have paid to have all my manuscripts critiqued by various editors. It is always advisable to have another, objective, pair of eyes look over your work before publication.

Always remember, the work is yours and you can do with it what you like with it. You can take notice of criticism or ignore it all together.

I remember receiving seven A4 pages of criticism from one editor. I hid it in a drawer then went back to it, more calmly, a day or so later. A writer has to realise that this is only one person’s view. I soon discovered that there are three ways of dealing with criticism: 1. Yes, I had a gut feeling about this and have to agree with her and will alter it. 2. I’m not sure about this point and will think about it and alter it if I come to the conclusion that she is right. 3. She has not understood this at all and is quite wrong so I will stick to my guns.

Regretfully, the publishers of my five Bron books, Pen Press, went out of business and the novels were taken over by Author Essentials, who published Flash Black. I did not realise that this was a one-woman set-up and, when she sadly died a few months later, her company also ceased business.

Consequently, Amazon have some of the books listed as "unavailable". However, I have a stock of them at home and can supply any reader, charging the cost of the book plus £2. postage. Just get in touch – my details are available through the 'Contact Me' banner.

As I paid for help to publish Hunterswick Green through CreateSpace (if you are cleverer than me, you can do this yourself at very little cost), this is readily available by print or Kindle from Amazon.

All the kindle versions eventually found their way to New Generation Publishing, but they do not have the printed formats, except for Flash Black. When I have exhausted my stocks at home, I will probably reprint through them.

New Generation Publishing have published my latest novel, My Lady Marian, at a sixth of the cost I paid my first publishers