To mark the publication of The Midnight Peacock, the final book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series this week, I thought it would be fun to share some of my research process for the books. I love research and it’s something that I’m often asked about when I’m out and about at events and talking to readers.
Here are seven ways that I’ve approached researching the series and imagining myself back into Edwardian London:
1) Collecting visual inspiration
Visual inspiration is really important to me: I love collecting images and using them as a spring-board for writing. From the very beginning I started gathering together images that would help me imagine what 1900s London and the world of an Edwardian department store would look like. They included: Edwardian photographs that reminded me of my characters; images of 1900s maps, newspapers, bus-tickets and advertisements; photographs of London shops and street scenes; 1900s art, design and illustration; and of course lots of pictures of Edwardian fashion – from gowns to shoes to the all-important hats. Although many of the images were from the 1900s, I also gathered more contemporary images that had an Edwardian vibe or which evoked elements of the series to me.
Pinterest was an incredibly useful tool here: I made an ‘Edwardiana’ board where I could collect images I found online, as well as a secret Pinterest board for each book, which I later shared with my editor and designer. As well as providing a useful reference point, the material I collected really helped me to develop an aesthetic and atmosphere for each book . I’ve now made all the boards public – you can see them here. It’s interesting looking back to see how different each board is – from the light, frothy brightness of Clockwork Sparrow to the darker, autumnal feel of Painted Dragon right through to the rich and sumptuous jewel tones of Midnight Peacock.
Making a digital collection of images like this is super quick and easy, but if you prefer to take a more analogue approach, I also love sticking up postcards and other relevant images around my desk, or on a pin-board. For the Sinclair’s Mysteries I also made a scrapbook where I could collect together hard-copy images that had inspired me – you can read more about it and see some pictures over on the Egmont blog.
2) Reading back in time
At the very beginning of the writing process, I tried to read as much as I could that I had been written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, starting with children’s books by the likes of Frances Hodgson Burnett and E Nesbit. However I didn’t stop with children’s fiction – I read all kinds of other books as well, casting my net as widely as possible. These included: Edwardian detective and spy novels; classics by authors like E M Forster; contemporary works of non-fiction like Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (which was particularly helpful for researching the East End); memoirs (I loved Dodie Smith’s Look Back With Love, and semi-autobiographical novels like The Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild and The Edwardians by Vita Sackville West); and even etiquette guides and travel guides. I found this breadth of reading really helped immerse me in the world of the Edwardians and often sparked off unexpected ideas for the stories.
I’ve used the British Library a huge amount for my research: one of the things I loved best about working there is that I was able to look at original copies of Edwardian books and periodicals, which was invaluable. For the Sinclair’s Mysteries, I looked at material such as an original 1900s Baedeker’s Guide to London, as well as magazines like Boy’s Own and Boys of England (which inspired the fictional magazine Boys of Empire which Billy reads). There’s something really quite magical about being able to look at a book that’s over 100 years old!
3) Exploring contemporary books
As well as reading lots of late Victorian and Edwardian material, I also sought out contemporary books set in or around the Edwardian period. Two I read very early on were Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead (a biography of Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridges) and The Children’s Book by A S Byatt – two extremely different books that both had an important part to play in shaping the series.
Later I sought out more specific books to help me research particular elements of Edwardian society. For the artistic community of The Painted Dragon, for example, I read A Crisis of Brilliance by David Haycock, Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson, and Life Class by Pat Barker. When I’m researching a specific topic, I particularly look for non-fiction titles which have lots of rich detail and personal anecdotes – though once again I do like to look at a wide variety of different reading matter. For me, illustrated children’s books, novels or books of photography or fashion history can be just as helpful as traditional history or biography. Even a sticker book – like this lovely Edwardian one from Usborne – might have a part to play in your research!
4) Visiting museums and galleries
I love pottering around museums and galleries and this element of the research process was a real joy for me. The Museum of London was a great starting point for the Sinclair’s Mysteries: their collection includes items like an Edwardian motor-taxi, the original 1920s lift doors from Selfridges, a variety of Suffragette memorabilia, and Edwardian clothing. I also love their Victorian shopping street which is a great example of what London shopping was like before the Edwardian department store came along!
Lots more inspiration was found at the V&A, the British Museum, the Museum of London Docklands (especially helpful for The Jewelled Moth), the National Gallery, Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the London Transport Museum and the Royal Academy. The Wallace Collection was the perfect setting to picture Mr Lyle in The Painted Dragon (you can even see the painting ‘The Swing’ by Fragonard that Lil recreates in the book). An impromptu visit to Two Temple Place was really helpful in bringing to life the interior of Lord Beaucastle’s mansion in The Jewelled Moth.
At The Wallace Collection
I’d hugely recommend a museum or art gallery visit as a source of inspiration, especially when you’re feeling short on ideas. There’s something very powerful about seeing artworks or objects from the past ‘in the flesh’ – their colours, textures and physical qualities. A painting, a photograph or an object can be a great starting point for writing.
I’ve also found museum and gallery shops useful places to find interesting or unusual non-fiction books, postcards and historical maps – early on in writing The Clockwork Sparrow I bought a copy of a 1900s map of London from the Museum of London shop which has been invaluable in helping me get a sense of Sophie & Lil’s London.
5) Film and TV
Film and TV can be a brilliant way to immerse yourself in a particular time period. For the Sinclair’s Mysteries I watched lots of 1900s-set films, from old favourites like The Secret Garden, The Railway Children, Howard’s End and A Room with a View to newer movies like The Illusionist, Suffragette and Testament of Youth (the latter has particularly gorgeous 1910s fashion). Handily, Downton Abbey was also on TV while I was writing the first book.
One obvious TV reference point for me was the TV series Mr Selfridge. However, I’d already started working on the series before the series came out, and so made a deliberate decision not to watch it, because I didn’t want my own Sinclair’s department store to be too strongly influenced by the TV version of Selfridges. I think it was probably the right decision – though I’ve since caught up on a couple of episodes and I loved seeing how they brought Edwardian London and a brand new department store to life.
On my wanderings I’ve spotted all kinds of fragments of old 1900s London beneath the surface of the contemporary city – from ‘ghost signs’ (faded old advertisements that can still be glimpsed on the side of buildings) to 1900s lampposts. I’ve ridden on the tops of London buses trying to imagine what the view would look like for Sophie in Edwardian London; I’ve peered out of windows and explored mysterious alley-ways; and have even gone rowing in a London park to help me get into the mood for a spot of Edwardian boating (in The Jewelled Moth).
Of course I’ve also visited lots of London’s real-life Edwardian department stores. As well as Selfridges, key points of inspiration for the books included Liberty’s, Harrods, and Fortnum & Mason. Liberty’s and Fortnum’s are particularly lovely for a spot of research: stepping through the doors feels rather like going back in time. There’s also a wonderful Edwardian vibe to old-fashioned shops like Hatchard’s, streets like the Burlington Arcade, and London hotels and restaurants like the Wolseley on Piccadilly – which leads me beautifully onto my seventh point…
One of my very favourite research methods! As in all good children’s books, the characters in the Sinclair’s Mysteries do a fair amount of eating, so I spent time finding out about what Edwardian people typically ate. (For the very wealthy it was a quite terrifying amount of food – as anyone who has watched Sue Perkins and Giles Coren’s Edwardian Supersize Me will know!)
Obviously it was only right and proper that I tested out the kind of afternoon tea that might be served up at Sinclair’s, including many cakes, buns, sandwiches and other delicacies. My agent Louise and my editor Ali have been particularly helpful in making sure we’ve done plenty of this all-important research: we even celebrated the publication of The Clockwork Sparrow with a special afternoon tea at Harrods!
It may sound frivolous (and let’s face it, I don’t really need much of an excuse when it comes to eating cakes) but I really do think that focusing on details like what people ate and the clothes they wore goes a long way to helping you imagine what life in another time might have been like.
So there you have it: my seven top tips for researching historical fiction!
When I started writing The Clockwork Sparrow, I knew that London was going to be a hugely important part of the Sinclair’s Mysteries. I started writing the first book not long after moving to London, and I wanted to take inspiration from my own experiences of living in the city, as well as the real history of London in the 1900s, and weave this into the world of the books.
I’ve looked at maps, photographs, and even travel-guides to London from the 1900s. I wanted to be able to imagine as vividly as I could what it might have felt like for my characters, as they walked around London’s streets over 100 years ago. And although most of the places in the books are fictional, they are very much inspired by the real places and spaces of the city that I’ve explored and found out about.
With this in mind, I’ve created a new interactive map, with lots more about the real life places that inspired some of the most important locations in the Sinclair’s Mysteries. You can read more about it over on the Egmont blog – or click on a pin to start exploring the map.
Mysterious gentlemen’s club Wyvern House is the scene of some exciting goings-on in The Painted Dragon. Whilst Wyvern House itself is totally fictional, during the Edwardian era, gentlemen’s clubs like it were an important part of London life.
Most well-off gentlemen would belong to at least one – or possibly several – of these exclusive establishments. Gentlemen’s clubs had become popular in the 19th century, and by 1909, when the Sinclair’s Mysteries are set, there were around 200 of them in London. Most were situated in the St James St/Pall Mall area of the West End, which was known as ‘Clubland’ – see above. (In The Painted Dragon I’ve departed from tradition by instead positioning Wyvern House in the City of London, close to the Bank of England; however, Mr Pendleton’s club which also makes a brief appearance towards the end of the book, is situated in the heart of Clubland.)
Each club was usually aimed at a specific group of gentlemen, who might share a political affiliation, a profession, or a particular interest. Some were military clubs, others for those who had studied at a particular university, whilst some were purely social clubs. Some of the most famous Edwardian clubs included The Athenaeum (founded in 1824, ‘for men of science, literature and art’), The Reform (founded in 1836, for those who supported the Reform Bill), Brook’s (for Liberals) and the Marlborough (formed by Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales). There was even the Travellers’ Club, founded in 1819 for men who had travelled a minimum of 500 miles outside the British Isles.
The oldest and arguably most exclusive club was White’s, founded in 1693. It began life as a hot chocolate emporium, but later became a gentleman’s club, and by the 18th century, it had gained a reputation for gambling. The club kept an infamous ‘betting book’ recording its members’ personal bets on everything from political events to marriages. One of the most famous bets it recorded was Lord Alvanley’s 1816 bet of £3,000 that a particular raindrop would chase its way down the club’s famous bow window, before another! It’s even rumoured that a man once collapsed outside the club’s front doors, and bets were immediately placed on his chances of survival. (White’s, like several of the most famous Edwardian gentlemen’s clubs is still in existence today – and its current members include Prince Charles and Prince William.)
Each of the clubs had different rules and regulations, and different atmospheres. Some were serious and silent, whilst others were much more raucous, and the scene of gossip and scandal. Either way, wealthy gentlemen would usually spend a lot of their time at their club, eating, drinking, playing cards or billiards, and relaxing with their fellow members. Many clubs even had bedrooms which the members could use, and some gentlemen might live at their club for weeks at a time!
Just like in The Painted Dragon, women were not permitted to enter these Edwardian gentlemen’s clubs, which were very much masculine spaces.However, by the late 1890s, a small number of clubs, including the Abermarle, did admit both ladies and gentlemen. What’s more, some clubs for women were beginning to spring up. The first was the Somerville Club, founded in 1879, for graduates of the college; whilst the high society Alexandra Club (1884) required its members to attend Court Drawing Rooms. The Victoria, established in 1894, was ultra-exclusive and provided dining rooms, reading rooms, drawing rooms, and bed chambers for its members, accommodating ladies for up to a fortnight at a time. By 1899 there were nearly 25 clubs in London catering specifically for women. I wonder if Sophie and Lil might even have become members of one of them?
The wonderful map of Clubland at the top of this post is by artist Adam Dant and is actually a silk pocket square designed for Drakes Of London! Find out more information here on the website Spitalfields Life.
Illustration from The Painted Dragon by Karl James Mountford
When I started writing The Painted Dragon, I knew that I wanted the story to centre on an art theft. Mysterious stolen paintings are a classic crime trope, appearing everywhere from episodes of ‘Jonathan Creek’, through to Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Goldfinch!
What’s more, a little research soon showed me that there were some fascinating real-life art thefts that took place during the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Here are two of my favourite examples:
The Mona Lisa
The theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia in 1911 has been described as ‘the greatest art theft of the 20th century.’
A former employee of the Louvre, Peruggia reportedly entered the museum first thing in the morning amongst a crowd of workers, disguising himself in the same white smock the workers always wore. Waiting until the Salon Carré, where the Mona Lisa hung, was completely empty, he lifted the painting off the wall, and took it to a nearby service staircase where he removed its protective case and frame, before sneaking it out of the building.
Peruggia hid the painting in a trunk in his Paris apartment for two years, whilst the police investigated the crime. Amongst the many people they questioned were the artist Pablo Picasso. They even questioned Peruggia himself, but accepted his explanation that he had been working elsewhere on the day of the robbery. Meanwhile, in the Louvre, art lovers left bouquets of flowers against the bare wall, where The Mona Lisa had once hung.
Peruggia was finally caught in 1913, after he took the painting back to his home country of Italy. There, he contacted Alfredo Geri, the owner of a Florence art gallery, and told him that The Mona Lisa was in his possesion. After ‘authenticating’ the painting (to check it was real and not a forgery), Geri at once informed the police – and Peruggia was arrested.
There was a frenzy of delight when The Mona Lisa was found. Geri was awarded the rosette of the Légion d’Honneur by the French state, and exhibitions were organised all around Italy with great fanfare. Italian children even got the day off school to go to Florence to admire the rescued painting. Finally, at the end of December, the painting was transported back to Paris in its own special railway carriage. Whenever it passed through a station, people would gather to cheer and wave!
To this day, no one is absolutely certain why Peruggia decided to steal the painting. Some think it was for patriotic reasons: Peruggia believed the painting had been stolen from Italy by Napoleon (although in fact, Leonardo da Vinci had given the painting as a gift to the French king Francis I, 250 years before Napoleon’s birth!) and wanted to return it to its homeland. Others believe that it was con-man Eduardo de Valfierno who had masterminded the crime, with the aim of commissioning a forger to make copies of the painting, which he could then sell as the missing original. But whatever is the truth about Peruggia’s motives, there’s no doubt that the theft helped make The Mona Lisa more famous – and enigmatic – than ever.
The Duchess of Devonshire
One of the most fascinating art crimes I found out about during my research for The Painted Dragon was the theft of Gainsborough’s painting The Duchess of Devonshire .
In 1876, the recently rediscovered portrait had been sold to art dealer William Agnew at auction for the astronomical sum of 10,000 guineas – then the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction. The auction created a frenzy of interest around the painting, and when it was put on display at Agnew’s Bond Street gallery it drew big crowds of people, who all wanted to see this priceless portrait for themselves. But just a few short weeks after the painting went on display, Agnew’s gallery was broken into – and The Duchess of Devonshire was stolen!
The theft provoked a great deal of media attention, and the gallery was soon flooded with letters and telegrams from people all over the country, who either claimed to have spotted the painting, or had their own wild theories about how the theft might have taken place, and how Agnew could get the painting back.
The mysterious theft made the portrait itself even more famous. The Duchess of Devonshire herself became a fashion icon, and the painting had a huge influence on the styles of the day – with ostrich-feather ‘Gainsborough hats’ becoming all the rage in both London and New York.
Amazingly, the painting wasn’t seen again for 25 years, when the truth about what had happened to The Duchess of Devonshire was finally revealed. The painting had in fact been stolen by Victorian master thief, ‘the Napoleon of Crime’ himself, Adam Worth.
Initially, Worth had stolen the painting in order to raise bail to release his brother from prison. But when his brother was unexpectedly freed without bail, Worth decided to keep the painting ‘for a rainy day’. At this time he was posing as Henry J Raymond, a wealthy and highly respectable American gentleman. At his fashionable residence on Piccadilly, he kept the painting carefully pinned under the mattress of his four-poster bed. Later, he had a trunk made with a false bottom which allowed him to conceal the painting (along with other spoils, such as stolen diamonds) on his journey back to the United States. So began what Ben MacIntyre in his book about Worth, The Napoleon of Crime describes as ‘a strange, true Victorian love-affair between a crook and a canvas’.
It’s certainly true that Worth seems to have felt a strong desire to keep hold of The Duchess of Devonshire. For many years, he kept the portrait carefully hidden in a Brooklyn warehouse – and even when a robbery went wrong, and he was arrested and sent to prison in Belgium, he never tried to sell the painting, nor revealed its whereabouts to anyone.
In fact, it wasn’t until several years after his release from prison, in early 1901, that he finally negotiated a return of the painting to the Agnews (via the famous American detective agency Pinkerton’s) for the sum of $25,000. The portrait and payment were exchanged in Chicago in March 1901, and shortly afterwards the The Duchess of Devonshire arrived back in London, and was immediately put up for sale. Wall Street financier JP Morgan quickly snapped it up for a reported $150,000.
Adam Worth himself is such a fascinating figure that I’ll save writing more about him for another blog post. But you might like to know that after belonging to the Morgan family for most of the 20th century, today The Duchess of Devonshire has at last made her way back home to Chatsworth House, home of the Devonshire family.
The theft of The Green Dragon, the priceless painting that is stolen in The Painted Dragon, ended up being rather different to the real-life theft of either The Mona Lisa or The Duchess of Devonshire – featuring a forged painting, a locked-room mystery, and a mysterious criminal in red leather gloves. However, there’s no doubt that these real-life Edwardian art crimes had an important part to play in helping to inspire the story. If you would like to read a bit more about art thefts there are some fascinating books on the subject: I’d particularly recommend The Napoleon of Crime as mentioned above.
Illustration by Karl James Mountford, from The Painted Dragon
The third book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series, The Painted Dragon, takes us into a new area of Edwardian London. In this story, we are plunged into the city’s art world – meeting art students, celebrated painters and art collectors – and going behind the scenes at exhibitions, auctions and museums, as well as art school the Spencer Institute.
Whilst the Spencer Institute is fictional, it was partly inspired by a real-life art school, the Slade, which still exists in London today. Forming part of University College London, the Slade was founded by lawyer and philanthropist Felix Slade in the 1860s. In the late 19th and early 20th century, an incredible number of famous artists studied there – including Augustus and Gwen John, Percy Wyndham Lewis, and (a little later, at around the time The Painted Dragon is set) the likes of Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer.
This group of young artists – together with their wider circle of writers and intellectuals – were something like the Young British Artists of their day. They enthusiastically embraced exciting new artistic movements such as Futurism and Vorticism and they led unconventional Bohemian lifestyles. They enjoyed wearing wild and unusual clothes – like Dora Carrington, who was one of the ‘Slade Cropheads’, a group of female students who dramatically rejected ideas of Edwardian beauty by cutting off their long-hair into short boyish bobs.
In all these ways, the art students rebelled against the conservative, traditional old-fashioned culture of the Edwardian era – and opened the door to the exciting new possibilities of modernism, taking their inspiration from the avant-garde artists of Paris and Vienna.
Dora Carrington and some of her fellow ‘Slade Cropheads’
In The Painted Dragon we see this world thorough the eyes of aspiring artists Leo and Jack, as they start their first term at the Spencer Institute. Like Leo, Jack and their friends at the Spencer, the real-life students at the Slade in the 1900s would begin their studies by spending lots of time in the Antiques Room, drawing from copies of plaster casts of Greek, Roman and Renaissance sculpture. Here, they would be carefully watched over by the strict Professor Henry Tonks – a rather terrifying figure, who was both respected and feared by his students! He was famous for his stinging criticisms, which sometimes made students weep – and rarely praised anyone. (Professor Jarvis, the stern drawing teacher who appears in The Painted Dragon, certainly owes a little something the real-life Professor Tonks.)
An Edwardian drawing class
Only when Professor Tonks considered them good enough were the art students allowed to graduate to the Life Class, where they would draw real models. Male and female students had separate life classes, for reasons of decorum! But in general, the art school was a place where the strict rules of Edwardian society were relaxed. Students came from many different backgrounds: the Slade welcomed both students like Mark Gertler, a talented sixteen-year old from the slums of East London; and well-off young people, such as Richard Nevinson, who came from a middle-class background and had previously attended an expensive public school. Outside classes, the students enjoyed socialising at bohemian cafes and restaurants like the famous Café Royal – which also makes an appearance in The Painted Dragon.
The Cafe Royal in 1901
These young artists were dedicated to their work, producing everything from portraits and still-lifes to landscape paintings. They played an important role in influencing – and unsettling – the art and culture of their time. But in 1914, the outbreak of war changed everything. The First World War, in which so many of them fought and died, had a shattering affect upon this young artistic community. Today, it’s sobering to reflect on what they might have been able to achieve under different circumstances: as Randolph Schwabe wrote: ‘Much talent and some genius was born into their generation, and their loss… is deplorable in its tale of waste and unfulfilment.’
For fiction, Pat Barker’s Life Class trilogy of (adult) novels are partly set at the Slade and focus on a group of young artists. I’d also highly recommend Ruth Elwin Harris’s YA novels The Quantock Quartet (now sadly out of print) about the artistic Purcell sisters – in particular Frances’s Story which follows ambitious older sister Frances to London to study at the Slade.
Today, you can see paintings by some of the artists who studied at the Slade at Tate Modern. For more of an idea of what the Edwardian art world would have been like, I’d also recommend visiting the grand Royal Academy (the heart of the Edwardian art establishement – the opening of the famous Royal Academy show each year was a highlight of the London Season) and the Wallace Collection, a beautiful gallery which includes lots of the kinds of paintings that might be found in Mr Lyle’s art collection – including ‘The Swing’ byJean-Honoré Fragonard, which Lil helps bring to life in The Painted Dragon. You can also still visit the Café Royal on Regent Street, though today it looks very different to the bohemian cafe of the 1900s!
The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of the Edwardian era.