Ah, isn’t he lovely! This is Titian’s The Man with the Blue Sleeve. A painting that has such a prominent place in my novel Titian’s Boatman that it is also its sub-title. The book is published at the end of January by Black and White publishing. This fine fellow was painted by Titian in 1510, when the painter was twenty years old and hangs in The National Gallery in London.
So this is the story of me and The Man with the Blue Sleeve and how he muscled his way into my novel.
I was between books. Never a good time. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, for whatever reasons, I need to write and I need to be working on a story and if I’m not the effect isn’t good and the effect is physical. It’s like having the ague. A more modern version would be that it’s like the first few days before you know you’ve definitely got the flu. You don’t feel ill enough to go to bed but you know something is going on and it’s not good. In the meantime you irritate everyone you come in contact with. I hesitate to quote Boris Johnson but I was definitely in a state that might best be described as a whinge-o-rama. My partner had had enough of me, pointed at the door and said, ‘Be gone.’ So out I went.
There was a 22 bus and I got on it. The bus went into town and I got off at Piccadilly Circus. I wandered. There was The National Gallery. I went in and my wander took me, as it often does when I’m in this condition, to the room with the Titians, currently Room 2.
And there was The Man with the Blue Sleeve and I stood in front of him and stared and I realised I had been here many times before. And then I felt it, the thing that makes a writer know that this is the trigger, (the poncy word is donné) the thing that sparks the beginning of a novel. The thing that is given to you. There he was. There I was. And I knew my next novel was spluttering into life.
“We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.”
It was only once I was up and running with the book and was telling people about it that I realised how many other people loved the painting. You have to develop a shorthand description for works in progress because often the simple truth is you have no idea what you’re doing but it’s embarrassing to say that because you sound like a driveling idiot. So I started saying, ‘It’s about Titian and The Man With The Blue Sleeve’. ‘Oh, yes, isn’t he lovely?’ was a fairly common response or, ‘Oh yes, I love him.’ I was mildly miffed at times. Something that I thought was a private obsession was, I quickly realised, shared with the world and her husband. I was not alone in my adoration of The Man with the Blue Sleeve. He was everyone else’s man as well. Of course he was, he was a masterpiece.
Why him? Well, partly I think it’s because I’ve always been rather better one to one than in groups. It’s not that I don’t play well with others but my instinct has always been to the tête à tête. Those huge paintings with large amounts of religious or mythological symbolism make me feel overwhelmed, as if I’ve walked into a room filled with strangers talking in tight groups and they are not going to move one inch to welcome me or let me in. It’s a sort of sensory overload. There’s too much to look at and I feel I need to read a great many books to work out the symbolism. I’m OK with the distorted skull in the front of The Ambassadors. Yes, yes, we’re all going to die. That’s not hard but some of the others …
There’s a simplicity to looking at a portrait that I like. There’s not so much I feel I need to know to enjoy it. The date: 1510. The painter: Titian. Titian’s age: 20. That’s enough and then you can just get on with looking at him. There’s not much to distract you. And what do you see? No, seriously what do you see? What sort of man do you think you are looking at? What do you think he’s like? Fill my comment box below lovely people! I’m really curious to know what you think. And then I will do another post on my lovely man which uses your lovely comments as my jumping off point.
P.S. The painting has had various titles over the years: The Man with the Blue Sleeve, A Man with a Quilted Sleeve and finally Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, 1510. I eschew all those other than the one I’ve used above because that is what he was titled when I first encountered him and also I’ve never heard anyone call him anything other than The Man with the Blue Sleeve. I like the mystery and anonymity of it and it allows projection aplenty, always useful for a novelist.