Ghost Portrait, my third novel, was published by Sceptre in 2005.
In rural Kent in 1680, the celebrated but now nearly blind painter Nathaniel Deller bargains with his former pupil: if William completes Nathaniel’s portrait of his beloved late wife, he may marry their daughter. But can William Stroud accept what seems an impossible commission? And what demons have prompted it?
Spanning the English Civil War and the Restoration as it uncovers Nathaniel Deller’s life layer by layer, Ghost Portrait explores the conflict between conscience and ambition, and questions whether the present – life itself – should suffer in the attempt to salvage the past.
“Much historical fiction thrives on caricature, but the characters in Ghost Portrait live and breathe, full of memories and regret. Readers normally averse to books rooted in the distant past should give this one a chance. The first few pages may be a shock to the system, but the rest will more than justify it.”
Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski, The Independent
“An intimate drama that wears its learning lightly, written with great clarity and the minimum of narrative fuss… Norminton relates a timeless story of professional compromise and personal betrayal… With delicate, economical strokes, Norminton has created characters that strain against their historical circumstance, without ever jarring into anachronism. Each is drawn with a skilful sympathy that resonates beyond the page. The blank-faced painting of Deller’s dead wife — irrevocable, unfinishable — is not the only ghost portrait in the book: there is also his sketch of Thomas on the heath, drawn before the bitterness of crushed hopes, and his own memories of his younger self. Suffused with desire and regret, this beautiful, understated novel is a moving meditation on change and compromise, on ‘time — which makes us contradict ourselves.’ ”
Justine Jordan, The Guardian
“An elegant, convincing historical novel whose setting complements rather than engulfs the human drama.”
The Times Literary Supplement
“Norminton’s prose is as lyrical as ever, at its best in his wonderfully bucolic realisation of the Diggers’ doomed utopian community… Anything by Gregory Norminton is a pleasure to read.”
“A fascinating insight into an England torn apart by war.”
The blind Milton and the bankrupt Rembrandt are two of the models for the painter, Nathaniel Deller.
Ghost Portrait is the last of a very, very loose ‘trilogy’ of historical novels with an art historical theme. It comes closer to home than its predecessors, being set in England in the seventeenth century.
Based on a radio play that I wrote while a drama student (and which received a staged reading at LAMDA, with Oliver Ford Davies gamely taking the role of Nathaniel Deller), Ghost Portrait was long in the making. It touches on themes that are increasingly central to my writing. You can learn more about the historical Diggers here and here.
After the defeat of their social experiment, many Diggers became Quakers. In the years since I published Ghost Portrait, I have become a member of the Religious Society of Friends and lived for a time at the Quaker Community in Bamford, Derbyshire. It can be argued that such intentional communities have their roots in soil first turned by these seventeenth century radicals.
Here’s a piece I wrote for The Independent on Sunday, pub June 19, 2005:
Many of us have, thanks to television, a specific picture of the English Civil War: ordinary plumbers, accountants and IT consultants marching in fancy dress under the Stansted flight path. Battles will always capture people’s imagination and if it’s the military stuff that interests you, I recommend The English Civil War by Peter Young and Richard Holmes. Strategy and operations are covered in excited detail and one can imagine, while reading it, the splendid Mr Holmes speaking to camera as he trudges through wheat fields. The Civil Wars Experienced by Martyn Bennett explores the impact of the wars (as they really were) on ordinary people. The present Routledge edition looks like a school textbook but don’t let that put you off.
If you feel inclined to devote a month to the subject, you can’t do better than Austin Woolrych’s vast Britain in Revolution 1625-1660. Everything is here, in a work of admirable scope and detail; but you will need strong arms if you wish to read it in bed.
Researching my latest novel I wanted to focus on radical groups that emerged from the conflict. The Marxist historian Christopher Hill was perhaps the leading advocate of the term ‘revolution’ to account for these tumultuous years. The World Turned Upside Down offers an excellent summary of radical ideas of the period. Hill’s The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution is a more academic read, while his survey of those – including Milton – whose hopes were ultimately dashed by the Restoration, The Experience of Defeat, was very useful to me in my tale of failed ideals.
If the intellectual ferment is your thing, you should seek out transcripts of the Putney Debates of 1647. Here, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin that still stands by Putney Bridge (dwarfed now by executive flats), spokesmen for the ‘middling sort’ broached with humbling eloquence the notion of universal franchise. Though the debates were quickly dissolved, the mental foundations had been laid of our democracy. (Michael Mendle has edited The Putney Debates of 1647: The Army, the Levellers and the English State, a series of academic studies of the debates whose transcript was only rediscovered in 1890.)
As for the Restoration, the obvious reads are Samuel Pepys’s diaries and Liza Picard’s Restoration London – an engrossing guide to tastes and manners. Between them, these books bring the physical realities of the period pungently to life.
National Trust’s Ightham Mote, in Kent, was one of my models for Deller’s house, while the Stroud family mill is based on Outwood Mill in Surrey.
Buy Ghost Portrait on Kindle.