I have to admit, one of the most liberating things I’ve found about writing fiction is that the scope for invention sometimes seems limitless. Of course, historical fiction with its clearly defined boundaries can prove tricky – but there’s no reason why these can’t be tinkered with every now and again. Enter Hayley Lock – imaginaut and artist extraordinaire: http://hayleylock.com/
It’s a rare thing to meet someone with whom you’re instantly on the same page. When I first saw Hayley’s work, which reinterprets portraiture and imagery from the past and creates alternative narratives for them, I got very excited. I got even more excited when we started to discuss (Now That Would Be) Telling, an Arts Council funded project that involved Hayley working with writers in various historic properties throughout the country. The remit was to create a parallel history for a house and/or its inhabitants through words and images. I was fortunate enough to be chosen to write a piece for Dr Johnson’s House, the modest home of the celebrated 18th century lexicographer, poet, essayist, critic and biographer. Johnson is a tough literary act to follow.
Those who have read about Johnson have probably come across mention of his unconventional household; a motley assortment of strays and suffering intellectuals who that kind soul took in. At one point Johnson played host to a blind bluestocking, a poor Scottish doctor, a former prostitute, a failed school mistress and her daughter, as well as his black servant and ward, Francis Barber. Anyone who has had to put up with difficult house guests is probably wincing in horror at the mere thought of this. Anyhow, this is all good fodder for story telling. I chose Francis Barber as my subject and set about embellishing fact with the golden thread of fiction. The end product can be read here: http://issuu.com/nowthatwouldbetelling/docs/telling_dr.j/1?e=3332807/6024571
Next came Hayley’s visual contribution. As my short story masquerades as a chapter in a forgotten 19th century biography about Johnson’s circle, we alighted on the idea of making the installation look as if it were an actual museum exhibition detailing this particular incident in Johnson and Barber’s life. This entailed the creation of several miniature portraits and ‘love tokens’, as well as reproducing the letters which appear in my story. The end result is quite convincing – fact and fiction have been seamlessly woven together, so much so that the house’s curator, Stephanie Chapman felt it necessary to post a word of warning near the display cases!
(Now That Would Be) Telling @ Dr Johnson’s House will be open until the 1st of November, but if you’d like to join us on the night of the 20th of October, Hayley and I will be talking about art, writing and our collaboration. Details can be found on the Dr Johnson’s House website: http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/
More about the project and installations at Ickworth, Brantwood, and A La Ronde can be read here: http://nowthatwouldbetelling.com/about/