Inspirational oddities : objects, costume, places

The oddest things can be inspirational. For me, at least.

chinese screen © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Chinese screen 1825-1865 © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Quite often, it’s objects or artefacts that inspire me. Take this gorgeous Chinese lacquer and embroidered silk screen, for example. It may date from as early as the 1820s and is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection. I found it when I was looking for ways of illustrating a blog about the Regency pelisse, which ladies wore outdoors to keep warm.

Inside, they wore shawls. Houses, back then, tended to be draughty, hence the need for draught screens, like this one.

I couldn’t forget it, because it is a stunning piece of art. If you look closely [click to enlarge the image], you’ll see that it includes vibrant blue birds and butterflies, flying among trees on that glowing gold silk background. According to the V&A’s description, it’s actually feather work. The other side is embroidered but, sadly, the V&A has no image of that.

Not quite the V&A’s Chinese screen

I Vampire and Beach Hut Surprise anthology coverI was so captivated by the screen, particularly by its colours, that I had to include it in a book. If you’ve read my vampire story in Beach Hut Surprise, you may remember that my Belle Époque heroine, Lucinda, has a lot of art in her Paris apartment. Her collection includes two Picassos (yes, two—she bought them from the artist himself, of course), a Renoir (ditto), and…a Chinese screen, painted in fantastically expensive lapis lazuli blue on a gold ground.

You’ll note that I didn’t make Lucinda’s screen exactly the same as the original. That decision was purely practical. A screen made of feathers on silk would be too fragile to last if it was on display for decades. That’s probably why the V&A does not have its original on display. So I decided that Lucinda’s would be more durable, lapis paint on a gilded ground. But in my mind’s eye, it looks exactly like the one in the V&A because I found that inspirational.

Costume can be inspirational too…

inspirational shreds of silver lace of a Regency ball gownWhat do you think this is?

It’s silver, clearly. But it’s really difficult to make out more than that.

In fact, it’s the remnants of the silver lace of a Regency ballgown from the Hereford costume collection. It must have been gorgeous when it was new, though possibly not as magnificent as the one shown below, which was Princess Charlotte’s silver wedding gown.

wedding dress of Princes Charlotte August 1816 silver lace tissu train

Princess Charlotte’s wedding dress 1816

Lady in Lace, Regency Timeslip, by Joanna MaitlandI thought it was really sad that the Hereford silver gown had ended up in shreds. So I was inspired to weave a story around it, about a Regency lace gown in a museum that could transport its wearer to its own time, when the gown was whole again. And stunningly beautiful.

That became my timeslip romance, Lady in Lace, though I have to admit that I changed the lace from silver to gold somewhere along the way, as you can see from the cover above. I hope the shredded ballgown feels I did it justice, in spite of the “upgrade” to gold.

Inspirational places?

sunset over the Solway Firth, ScotlandI was on holiday in Scotland, having dinner in a hotel overlooking the Solway Firth. It was early summer and, although it was late, the sun still hadn’t gone down completely. The tide was out and we could see the glow of the late-evening light on the ripples of the wet sand. “Magic,” I thought.

But I knew it was also treacherous. The Solway has quicksands. It is possible to cross from Scotland to England on foot but only if you know the way. Many people have been swallowed up in the Firth, because the tide can come in “faster than a horse can gallop”.

I had to write the story, didn’t I?

Not only the Solway Firth

Caerlaverock Castle and view to the Solway FirthBut I cheated. I also made it feature one of my favourite places in southern Scotland, the ruins of Caerlaverock Castle. You can see from this picture that it’s almost on the Solway Firth, too. That’s England in the distance.

It doesn’t look all that ruined in this first picture. But from the other side, it’s obvious. The image below shows Murdoch’s Tower, named after Murdoch, Duke of Albany who was supposedly imprisoned there in 1425. (It’s also obvious that it was raining when I took this picture. It didn’t spoil the atmosphere, though. I still loved it.) I’ve added in a graphic about how the castle might have looked when it was whole and in use, back in the thirteenth century.

Murdoch's Tower at Caerlaverock Castle Scotland  graphic of Caerlaverock Castle c1290

Caerlaverock provided inspiration for the two Scottish books in my Feuding Families series (out this month).

Star Crossed at Twilight by Joanna Maitland coverThe Solway Bride by Joanna Maitland coverI think it’s worth including it twice, don’t you? After all, there aren’t many triangular castles about.

You’ll see that I’ve included Murdoch’s Tower in the cover on the left, for Star Crossed at Twilight. Its brooding quality seemed exactly right for my Romeo and Juliet story.

For the other book, The Solway Bride, I didn’t include Caerlaverock on the cover, though it is very important in the story. For that cover, I decided to go with the sands of the Solway itself. And that romantic sunset. Plus a bit of tartan. Well, you do, don’t you?

Do you have places, or things, or atmosphere that you’ve found inspirational? Please do share.

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland

Joanna the incurable romantic

6 thoughts on “Inspirational oddities : objects, costume, places

  1. Sophie

    Fascinating blog, Joanna.

    Recently, I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme about Anthony Trollope by Michael Simmons Roberts and he said that both AT’s very first published novel and his breakthrough book, The Warden, started with buildings. So you’re in good company.

    And I love the idea of giving your remnants of old silver lace a happier ending. I think a lot of my books probably start out to do something like that.

  2. Joanna Post author

    Thanks, Sophie. That’s so interesting about Trollope, isn’t it? But also understandable. I do think lots of writers find buildings and artefacts inspirational. Also feelings/atmosphere, like my Solway sunset which I’ve never forgotten even though it was nearly 20 years ago.

  3. Rosemary Gemmell

    Love this post and the stories/photos of inspiration, Joanna. My first Scottish dual timeline novel, The Highland Lass, was inspired by my own hometown and the west coast – the alternate short historical chapters were directly inspired by the grave of Highland Mary (one of Robert Burns’ great loves), which I had visited since a child.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Ah, that’s lovely, Rosemary. Scotland is such a romantic inspiration, isn’t it? Every time I go home (and I still call Scotland “home” even though I left decades ago) I seem to see something new that inspires me.

  4. Liz Fielding

    I was once inspired by the glimpse of a small stately home perched high in woods while on my way to Cheltenham. The “who’s the woman standing at the door, and who is the man clutching a baby” scenario. It was two years before I was ready to write the book, but the image never left me. And then there was the emerald dagger at the Topkapi, seen decades earlier, that later became the ruby encrusted “Blood of Tariq”, touched by the hand of Lawrence. Small things, long memories… I especially love the silver lace inspiration for your Lady in Lace.

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