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Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan

The story of ‘The Master of Bruges’ began when my wife and I went on a tobacco run on the Hull ferry to Bruges in Belgium. We arrived at 8:30 in the morning, and once having bought her cigarettes (the work of about ten minutes) we could spend the rest of the day looking around the various churches and museums of that lovely city.

One of the places we went to was the Memlingsmuseum, which contains mainly works by the fifteenth-century Flemish painter Hans Memling. At this time I had never heard of him, but I was enjoying wandering about in there to the accompaniment of complaints from herself, who was desperate for a fag and couldn’t understand how I could spend twenty minutes looking at a painting while she was forced to stand there without any smoke issuing from her buccal orifice. As I say, I knew nothing of Memling and I knew even less than that about art (I’m really doing a top-class sell on this book, aren’t I?), but I did notice that he tended to use the same model again and again for the Madonna, and idly wondered to my dear good lady wife who the model might have been.

She cast an eye over a couple of the paintings, and then said, “I don’t know who she was, but she doesn’t half look like Claire from Corrie,”* and there the matter might have ended. I was eventually dragged out of the Museum into the open air, where she lit up and then demanded a sit-down and a beer, and we went into the main square to an open-air bar where she could indulge two of her legal drug addictions, nicotine and alcohol, and I was allowed to watch and, in due course, pay the bill. At the end of this time I expressed a wish to pop into another small museum across the road, where there were some paintings and a bit of sculpture, but Her Ladyship said, “No, you go. I’ll wait here with another beer that you’re going to buy me,” so I went across on my own.

It was not, it has to be said, a very interesting museum. The sculptures were nothing special, and the only painting that caught my attention was a very large dramatic Victorian one showing a forest scene, with a young lady swooning on the ground on the bottom right, a horse running away and a crowd of men and servants all legging it towards the girl. The picture was called “The Death of Princess Mary of Burgundy”.  I was about to turn away when a lady on my left said a sentence that I can truly say changed my life.

As I stepped back from this painting in Bruges I overheard a conversation between a couple behind me. He said to her, “Who was Mary of Burgundy?”, and she replied, – and this was the life-changing sentence – “I don’t know…but she doesn’t half look like Claire from Corrie.” And indeed she did.

When I got home I looked them up on the Internet. Mary of Burgundy was the only child of Charles the Bold, the fifteenth-century Duke of Burgundy. She lived most of her life in Bruges, was the Princess Diana of her day, and like Diana died young, in her case in a hunting accident in 1482 – hence the painting I had seen.

I wondered if she might have known Hans Memling. It turned out that this was possible; he had flourished in Bruges from 1465 until his death in 1494, and thus was an exact contemporary of the princess.

And that got me thinking. What if the Mary of Burgundy who looked like Claire from Corrie and the Memling Madonnas who also looked like Claire from Corrie were one and the same? Is it possible that Memling might have been painting Charles’ daughter? And if so, why?

What if, and why – the two archetypal writer’s questions. And that, basically, is the point that my book started from. I had to find out if the events I was postulating were possible and, if so, when and how they could have happened. There I struck writer’s  gold; nothing at all is known of Memling’s early life, not even, to within ten years, the date of his birth, so I had carte blanche. There’s a lot of conjecture; he was known to be German by origin, but had settled in Bruges in the mid-1460s. He was thought to have been once a soldier; he was thought to have trained in the studio of the painter Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, but nothing definite is known beyond the fact that he was a painter in Bruges. As with Shakespeare, odd references to him turn up in the Bruges records – paying taxes, buying a house, joining a confraternity, the birth of three sons and so on, but otherwise very little is known for certain. I began to feel the stirrings of a plot.

My next novel, ‘The Shadow Prince’ will be published at the beginning of next year. In a sense, it’s a sequel to ‘The Master of Bruges’ in that I take a minor character from this book and follow his adventures over the next few years. Like ‘The Master of Bruges’, it has been a great deal of fun to write, involving many research trips-stroke-tobacco runs over to Belgium and a great deal of sitting in bars and sampling various Belgian beers as I try to work out how to get my protagonist into another fine mess.
* The character Claire Peacock, played by Julia Howarth in Coronation Street for the non-brits among you.


Alis said...

Hi Terence - how nice to hear the story behind the story. I loved the Master of Bruges and wouldn't have guessed that you knew nothing about art when you started. What one can do with judicious research...

Deborah Swift said...

Everything started with one sentence - wow. Budding writers, I guess this is a lesson to keep your eyes and ears open when you are on holiday, you just never know where it might lead!

I've spotted the paperback cover on Amazon with its old bridge, looks good, though I love the painting of Memling's on this cover.

Terry Morgan said...

As a rider to the above, I went back again to Bruges after the book was published and chatted to the lady in charge of the Memlingsmuseum bookshop. She was adamant that they didn't stock fiction, but accepted a free copy to have a look at. A week later she rang up and ordered three hundred copies, and six months after that she bought the Dutch rights. 'De Meester van Brugge' is now available. God, I enjoy this writing life!

Deborah Swift said...

Oh what marvellous news! Congratulations!

Ann Weisgarber said...

Terry, the story behind your novel speaks to the power of the imagination. And I have to 'fess up that until reading your novel, I had never heard of Memling. Many thanks for the art appreciation lesson in novel form. It's a wonderful book.

Linda said...

I've never heard of Memling, altho I have heard of Charles the Bold and his daughter. Recently I've read several historical fiction books based on an artist, and found that I really enjoy them.