One of my favourite idea-generating pastimes is to look at famous paintings and read their histories. Perhaps the earliest ‘great’ painting I had ever heard of – this was before I knew of the existence of the Mona Lisa – is The Raft of the Medusa. 146 men and one woman were piled onto a hastily built raft after the French frigate Medusa was abandoned in June 1816 off the coast of West Africa. Only fifteen of them were rescued thirteen days later, and it was found that the survivors practiced cannibalism and endured dehydration and starvation.
As tragic as the actual incident was, I was introduced to it through an Asterix book called ‘Asterix the Legionary’, in which the framing and composition of the original is copied and peopled with pirates. The pirate chief, obviously miffed for having been scuttled once again (the pirates in the Asterix universe are always going under), says, ‘We’ve been framed, by Jericho.’
In the middle of writing Hastinapur, on a particularly slow writing day, I remember I sat down and rattled off a few hundred words of narrative from the point of view of the lone woman trapped on a raft in the middle of the sea with 146 men. It wasn’t very good, admittedly, but it did get the creative juices flowing, and I was back to my novel in no time. So for purely selfish reasons, the raft of medusa carries happy memories for me.
Which is your favourite painting from the romantic era?