Category Archives: National Portrait Gallery

Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People: Edited by Tarnya Cooper

Imagined Lives - Portraits of Unknown People - Edited by Tarnya Cooper Title: Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People
Edited by Tarnya Cooper
Publisher: National Portrait Gallery Publications
ISBN: 978-1855144552
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

A picture tells a thousand words they say. We have all learnt it as we were growing up. Yet how many of us can actually make pictures talk? Do we even care about what they have to say? The National Portrait Gallery in London receives portraits on a daily basis. Sometimes there are portraits that cannot be identified and belong to a century and time long gone.

attributed to Cornelius De Neve, oil on canvas, 1627

attributed to Cornelius De Neve, oil on canvas, 1627

So this is what the gallery did. They commissioned eight contemporary authors of Britain and Ireland to weave stories around fourteen unidentified portraits. Who are these men and women? What were their life stories? What were their thoughts? The book is about the lives of these unknown sitters from a time gone by.

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, transferred to canvas, circa 1570

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, transferred to canvas, circa 1570

The stories are deliciously written. Tracy Chevalier brings to life a painting and terms it “Rosy” about a man and his affair with another man. “I am Mary Douglas” by Minette Walters is a reflection of a time to connect emotionally with. You just want more of these stories recorded in the form of short memoirs, character sketches, diary entries and just a brief page or two about the subjects. There is also a brilliant story by Terry Pratchett on one of the portraits’ subjects meeting Queen Elizabeth. To me, that was the best piece in terms of humour.

Imagined Lives - Portraits of Unknown People - Edited by Tarnya Cooper - Image 3

Each portrait is written about and analyzed in detail – not a single element is missed out on. Alexander McCall Smith for instance does a wonderful job in “False Mary” where there is a sit in for Mary Queen of Scots herself. It is delicious and so absolutely believable that you want more from where that one came. Toward the end of the book is a brilliant explanation of how these portraits came to be by the chief curator of NPG and editor of the book Tarnya Cooper, titled “Did my hero look like that?”

“Imagined Lives” is a book about lost souls. It is about life and art merged and seen individually. I just chanced on this book and took to it. The stories and the portraits are something. Definitely something worth reading and owning.

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