Apart from a few references to creating fantasy worlds, my blog posts so far have dealt with how real locations can be used in fiction to make a point about either the underlying theme, the protagonist’s inner workings or any other topic an author would like to present in the sub-text. But sometimes we take our inspiration from very different sources for the landscapes into which we invite our readers. Not from an Atlas, Google Maps or an old-fashioned globe this time, the inspiration for my book cover and – at least in part – the plot for “Master of the Foxhunt” came from a famous painting.
The landscape painter and printmaker Winslow Homer (1836 to 1910) is a preeminent figure in American art. His beautiful painting “Fox Hunt”, falling so neatly into the Victorian era my ghost story is set in, was the inspiration for my novella’s cover. The story itself, which had been maturing in my head for a long time, was inspired by a real family of foxes who had taken up residence in my garden shortly after I had purchased a flat in London a few years ago. Since hardly a day goes by where I don’t see the bushy tail or tufty ear of an urban fox disappear around a corner these days, it was about time they took on a starring role in one of my works.
My London flat had been on the market for a while and so the garden was rather overgrown, when I purchased it. Imagine a whole row of Edwardian and Victorian family homes with 90-ft gardens arranged back-to-back and you can picture a ready-made urban heaven for foxes. The dilapidated shed that stood in the wilderness of brambles and tall grass at the bottom of my garden was soon transformed into a look-out station from which Mama Fox and her three cubs would survey their little kingdom each morning, when the sun would warm their pelts, while I was floating in the bath. My large picture window of my bathroom overlooked the garden and afforded me an excellent opportunity to spy on South East London’s urban wildlife.
The family of foxes didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they were quite the little show-offs, yawning widely and stretching out luxuriously of a morning, turning their little furry bellies towards the warming rays of the early sun, reminding me that their work was done while I still had my working day ahead of me!
Winslow Homer’s wonderful painting is on display at the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts and is one of three Homer masterpieces on show, the other two being “North Road Bermuda” and “Eight Bells”. Oil on canvas and measuring 96.5 b 174 cm, “Fox Hunt” was created in 1893 – eight years after the setting of my romantic ghost story, but close enough!
Homer was largely self-taught (like me…but unlike me, he was a hugely gifted painter!). He spent a short time studying oil painting in the spring of 1861, before being sent to the Civil War front in Virginia as an artist-correspondent for the illustrated journal Harper’s Weekly, then a fairly new publication. The time he spent at the front had a profound affect on him and he produced many works about the meaning of war, its impact on people. He was greatly admired by his contemporaries, who found the force of his work and fierce beauty, the drama and dynamic of his compositions deeply moving. Many of his later paintings carry hints of modernist abstraction and I feel “Fox Hunt” is a splendid example of this.
He often depicted scenes of hunting and fishing, producing many evocative and much admired seascapes in the process, but here we enter an unforgiving frosty world, an icy countryside that is beautiful, but deadly.
“Fox Hunt” was his largest painting up to that point, dealing with the depiction of survival in the wild – a subject largely inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and a topic uppermost on many artists’ minds in the final years of the 19th century. Set in a harsh winter landscape of the Main shoreline, Homer shows us a fox fleeing from a hungry flock of crows. The crow, harbinger of death in mythology for eons, is here not just a messenger but the actual executioner. Looking at the painting one really feels for the fox, its desperate struggle to escape from the trap half-starved crows have sprung on him by ganging up and hunting him as a pack through the deep snow.
Homer surprises us with this reversal of fortune, making the fox the prey. The fox has such a bad reputation as the raider of chicken coops, the cunning hunter of small prey, the sly opportunist who’ll steal your Sunday roast from your patio if you don’t watch out. It is indeed one of Homer’s most powerful and memorable images and a true masterpiece.
My version, of course, isn’t, as is evident from the book cover! However, given that I had to draw this by hand using a mouse pad and my index finger instead of a sweeping paintbrush…it’s hopefully not too insulting to foxes (I challenge thee, Mr Homer, to try your hand on my mouse pad and do better!). No crows this time, although a cheeky reference to them can be found in my story. As the cover shows, the reversal of fortune in my story involves foxes and humans. Since I find “blood sports” abhorrent and regard those who enjoy them as utterly depraved, expect to find foxes who’ll have the upper paw in my novella.
Homer’s “Fox Hunt” was deemed such a powerful work that it became the first of the artist’s paintings to enter a public collection, when the Pennsylvania Academy snapped it up in 1893. What I love about the painting is that our eye is first drawn to the red of the fox’s fur, then the red of the berries of the wild-rose bush, tiny messengers of hope in this harsh landscape, for they signal spring is on its way. With the change of season comes greater availability of food sources for both fox and crow. But then our eye is drawn to the fox’s dark shadow falling across the snow and that implies imminent death – only then do we really take notice of the crows and understand who is the hunter and who the prey in this painting.
Writers are always asked where they take their inspiration from. For once I can actually pinpoint what prompted me to write about a foxhunt and why I set the story in the latter part of Queen Victoria’s reign. Just as Homer’s painting is a complex study of the struggle to survive in a hostile world, how writers get their ideas and are able to create landscapes of their mind on paper is a complex topic and a question that isn’t easily answered.
My story, initially a straightforward ghost story, soon took a different turn, in that the main characters insisted it should be a love story that leaves readers with a warm glow on a cold winter’s day, not a horror story that sends even more shivers up and down their spines. I was rather miffed at first, but hey, when your main characters pull into one direction and you strain the other way, something’s got to give in the end. The wise thing is to give in and let them have their own way!
Fancy a slice of romantic Victorian ghost story at $0.99? #ebook #MustRead #fantasy Master of the Foxhunt is out! https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/master-of-the-foxhunt/id1080939714?mt=11
This is the only sales link I’ve received from the publishing platform I used so far, but the ebook should already be available at Kindle, Barnes & Noble, GooglePlay, Kobo etc. ISBN: 978-3-7396-3465-4
Published well in time for Valentine’s Day and much better for the hips than a box of chocolates…but just as satisfying!
(Winslow Homer’s “Fox Hunt” as per Wikipedia commons licence, in public domain, all animations via heathersanimations(dot)com, cover for “Master of the Foxhunt”: copyright Maria Thermann)