Thinking about the battle between the Royalists and Roundheads reminded me of a book I read recently and enjoyed very much - GHOST PORTRAIT by Gregory Norminton which was published in May. Norminton’s books tend to feature artists and paintings and GHOST PORTRAIT is based on an artist living during the restoration of the monarchy after the Civil War. It is easy to imagine some of the scenes set in a building like the Falcon but most of the action in the book takes place in the artist's rural mansion house or in the open air.
Perhaps it is a little irrelevant to remark that GHOST PORTRAIT is a beautifully produced book - an attractive small format in a rich dark turquoise with gold-leaf leaves scattered over both the outer paper cover and the cloth beneath, and this motif continued inside - quite a collector’s piece.
But of course the most important part of any book is the writing which lies inside and the writing inside GHOST PORTRAIT is as terse and beautiful as the cover. By careful choice of moments Norminton manages to convey the story of the life of the painter Nathaniel Deller in just 208 pages. Deller is approaching death and finding himself haunted by his past. He has lived through the English Civil war and the Restoration and Norminton depicts this period using snapshots of the old man’s life. These astute, accurately described scenes convey a lot about Deller’s character - the things that he did, the things that he didn’t do - and how these have built up, layer upon layer, to produce an elderly man, wracked more with the pain of memory than the physical ailments which have caused him to lose his sight (‘...his eyes, when they open, are frosted like windows in winter...’ ).
It is a clever structure and the story is convincing. But perhaps what I liked most about this book, apart from the use of language, is that I learnt about aspects of the Civil War, including a rather gruesome detail about Cromwell’s head. The ending is satisfying, happy and yet moving - something that stayed with me long after I had finished.
Gregory Norminton is very young - I think he wrote his first novel when he was only 26, and the next two have followed in rapid succession - but his work has mature feel and a strong, well-developed voice.
Last time I heard he was preparing to clamber through some jungle somewhere for some TV programme.
'Enjoy the English summer,' he told me, which turned out to be a bit of a curse until a recent short burst of fine weather. I am looking forward to reading about his adventures.