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There’s nothing new in the idea of a visual prompt to kick start a piece of writing. I have a folder of random images, from the post card of a red faced eighteenth century farm worker, to a twelve by fifteen inch landscape of the Lincolnshire fens, via some grainy black and white character studies and full colour night time shots taken at Carlisle’s railway station.  Workshops all over the world use the technique. Our own Liars League recently ran a competition in which punters chose a painting from the National Gallery (online) and wrote a story sparked by it. I had a punt (unsuccessful, of course) with Gainsborough’s Mr & Mrs Andrews, whom I might have been thought to have slandered unmercifully…but really, she does look a sharp faced little minx and he a gormless galloot (not sure of the spelling there, but the computer sure doesn’t like it!).

The question the technique raises is whether one is interpreting the picture or sparking off from it. Both are possible, and possibly in the same piece of writing I shouldn’t wonder. What is unusual, at least in my experience, is to couple up the resulting story with the originating image. Of course, that National Gallery/Liars League competition did just that, and I can remember using a photograph by a friend of mine to stand alongside the story The Three Billy Groughs and the Owld Goat (in Talking To Owls, Pewter Rose,2012).

But I recently came across a whole collection of short stories written around the paintings of Jack Vettriano. I’m a fan of Vettriano’s art, not least because, as someone pointed out in a video shown at the recent exhibition of his work at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery, Vettriano speaks directly to his audience, not requiring the intercession of academic interpreters. Maureen Oxley’s Myself and Other Strangers (the title aping that of Vettriano’s own book, Lovers and Other Strangers, Pavilion, 2002 with a text by Anthony Quinn) appends a story to each of 14 Vettriano paintings, and has one for its front cover too.

I think it’s rather splendid that the artist agreed to this, but I have misgivings about the coupling of the stories to the paintings in such a permanent way. Of course, if they are interpretations of the images, rather than stories inspired by them, it makes perfect sense, but if the images have been starting points for story making – as they usually end up being in those workshops – then making that permanent coupling seems to me to risk diminishing the stories as pieces of art in their own right. In this particular case that coupling is double locked, the stories carrying the same names as the paintings that accompany them.

Titles, whether for paintings or written stories, can be powerful indicators of how the artist or writer wants the work to be interpreted. Certainly for told stories they can set traps for the reader or listener, wrong footing the response until some key fact or alternative meaning is revealed later on. At the very least they seem to suggest that reader and viewer, in this case, are setting off down the same, or at least a similar road.

Vettriano’s paintings are all a moment in story, but which moment? Do they crystallize the beginning, the middle, or the end? Are they the moment of crisis? The turning point? The resolution or, to borrow Mckee’s term, the inciting incident? For each of us, I suspect, each painting will be a different point in a different story, one that we have recalled, or fantasised about, and each of us could write down our own version, a version that would be as valid and meaningful – especially to us – as anybody else’s.

Oxley’s stories won’t prevent or even discourage us from doing that, even though the paintings might seem to be as linked to them, as they are to the paintings. The question is rather, will Vettriano’s paintings tie the stories to them, hi-jacking our imaginations, and limiting our readings of them? Or will the stories – and I think one of them at least achieves this – subdue the paintings to mere illustration of one of their passages, if only for the duration of the reading?

You can’t argue with the commercial sense, though, of coupling the writing to the paintings of one of the country’s most popular and successful artists! Oxley’s book is available on Amazon, which is where my copy came from.