Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Researching art at the Royal Academy of Arts

By Sandra Danby

Researching and writing Connectedness, my second novel, gave me the excuse to indulge in art. I am a self-taught art lover. I am a ‘friend’ and frequent visitor of museums and galleries in London and Málaga, I always buy the shiny exhibition book and often visit the same show multiple times on my own and with a variety of friends. So it seemed natural to me to choose the Royal Academy of Arts on London’s Piccadilly as one of my settings for Connectedness.

The RA’s initial presence in the book was purely as a location. It is a beautiful building, located since its inception 250 years ago in Burlington House and recently renovated. At the beginning of the book, my lead character artist Justine Tree, receives a nomination to become an Academician.

With founding members in 1768 including Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, I wanted to convey the institution’s weight of history and the honour of this offer. Then as my plotting became more intricate the nomination took one another role, I needed to introduce a ‘risk’ for Justine; something she values but may lose through her actions.

She receives her nomination at a time of great professional success, when her newest series is a sell out but her personal life is in turmoil. Her mother has just died, her best friend is ill. Not the best time, perhaps, to decide to search for the lost daughter she gave up for adoption when she was an art student.

The RA’s invitation to become an Academician is dependent on the voting of members, receiving the letter is not a certainty of acceptance. And so as Justine fears the shame of her ‘abandoned baby’ story being unveiled in the press, she risks losing her nomination and being exposed as an artist who lied – all her career she has presented herself as true to her emotions, an artist who revels in her childless state and who wears her heart on her sleeve. Effectively she has lied to everyone in every piece of art she has created.

To make this ‘risk’ work fully, I read up on the history of the RA, visited the beautiful private Academician’s Room and bombarded the patient Press Office with questions such as ‘what does an artist’s medal look like?’ and ‘how does the voting work?’

I am also indebted to the writings of Tracey Emin who became an RA in 2007. She referred to it famously as joining ‘the RA-RA club’. Emin’s openness in her memoirs and newspaper columns gave me fertile material with which to create Justine Tree’s career. Also useful were the quarterly issues of the RA Magazine which published interviews with artists and photographs of their studios.

So, back to the ‘risk’ element which was so essential to maintaining tension and keeping the reader reading. I wanted to keep the viewpoints simple, concentrating on Justine as an art student and today, and with my identity detective Rose Haldane who Justine hires to find her child. But in order for the ‘risk’ strategy to work, I realized I must add a new viewpoint to show what was going on behind closed doors.

Enter fellow artist and new RA, James Watercliff. Through his eyes we see a gossipy lunch meeting at the RA where it is shown Justine’s nomination is not a sure thing.

The RA is not the only museum shown in Connectedness – scenes also take place at Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the Victoria & Albert Museum – but the RA is central to the plot. So when Justine’s friend Darya disappears, she is last seen heading in the direction of the RA to see Jeff Koons’s living flower ‘Puppy’ on display in the courtyard.

About Connectedness


Justine’s art sells around the world, but does anyone truly know her? When her mother dies, she returns to her childhood home in Yorkshire where she decides to confront her past. She asks journalist Rose Haldane to find the baby she gave away when she was an art student, but only when Rose starts to ask difficult questions does Justine truly understand what she must face.

Is Justine strong enough to admit the secrets and lies of her past? To speak aloud the deeds she has hidden for 27 years, the real inspiration for her work that sells for millions of pounds. Could the truth trash her artistic reputation? Does Justine care more about her daughter, or her art? And what will she do if her daughter hates her?

This tale of art, adoption, romance and loss moves between now and the Eighties, from London’s art world to the bleak isolated cliffs of East Yorkshire and the hot orange blossom streets of Málaga, Spain.

A family mystery for fans of Maggie O’Farrell, Lucinda Riley, Tracy Rees and Rachel Hore

About the Identity Detective series

Rose Haldane reunites the people lost through adoption. The stories you don’t see on television shows. The difficult cases. The people who cannot be found, who are thought lost forever. Each book in the Identity Detective series considers the viewpoint of one person trapped in this horrible dilemma. In the first book of the series, Ignoring Gravity, it is Rose’s experience we follow as an adult discovering she was adopted as a baby. Connectedness is the story of a birth mother and her longing to see her baby again. Sweet Joy, the third novel, will tell the story of a baby abandoned during The Blitz.

An extract from Connectedness


London, September 2009

The retired headmistress knew before she opened the front door that a posy of carnations would be lying on the doorstep beside the morning’s milk bottle. It happened on this day, every year. September 12. And every year she did the same thing: she untied the narrow ribbon, eased the stems loose and arranged the frilled red flowers in her unglazed biscuit-ware jug. Then she placed the jug on the front windowsill where they would be visible from the street. Her bones ached more now as she bent to pick them up off the step than the first year the flowers arrived. She had an idea why the carnations appeared and now regretted never asking about them. Next year, someone else would find the flowers on the doorstep. In a week’s time she would be living in a one-bedroom annexe at her son’s house in a Hampshire village. She walked slowly back to her armchair beside the electric fire intending to tackle The Times crossword but hesitated, wondering if the person who sent the flowers would ever be at peace.


Yorkshire, May 2010

The clouds hurried from left to right, moved by a distant wind that did not touch her cheek. It felt unusually still for May. As if the weather was waiting for the day to begin, just as she was. She had given up trying to sleep at three o’clock, pulled on some clothes and let herself out of the front door. Despite the dark, she knew exactly the location of the footpath, the edge of the cliffs; could walk it with her eyes closed. Justine lay on the ground and looked up, feeling like a piece of grit in the immensity of the world. Time seemed both still and marching on. The dark grey of night was fading as the damp began to seep through her jeans to her skin. A pale line of light appeared on the eastern horizon, across the flat of the sea. She shivered and sat up. It was time to go. She felt close to both her parents here, but today belonged to her mother.

Three hours later, she stood at the graveside and watched as the coffin was lowered into the dark damp hole. Her parents together again in the plot they had bought. It was a big plot, there was space remaining.

Will I be buried here?

It was a reassuring thought, child reunited with parents.

The vicar’s voice intoned in the background, his words whipped away by the wind. True to form, May was proving changeable. It was now a day requiring clothing intended for mid-winter, when windows were closed tight and the central heating turned on again. Or was it that funerals simply made you feel cold?


She repeated the vicar’s word, a whisper borne out of many childhood Sunday School classes squeezed into narrow hard pews. She was not paying attention to the service but, drawn by the deep baritone of the vicar who was now reciting the Lord’s Prayer, was remembering her first day at art college. The first class. Another baritone. Her tutor, speaking words she had never forgotten. Great art was always true, he warned, and lies would always be found out.

In her handbag was a letter, collected from the hall table ten days ago as she left the house for Heathrow and Tokyo. She had expected to return home to London but, answering the call from her mother’s doctor, had come straight to Yorkshire in the hope of seeing her mother one last time. The envelope, which was heavy vellum, and bore smidgens of gold and scarlet and the Royal Academy of Arts’ crest, was still sealed. She knew what the letter said, having been forewarned in a telephone call from the artist who nominated her. It was the official invitation. If she accepted, she was to be Justine Tree, RA.


Sandra Danby is a proud Yorkshire woman, tennis nut and tea drinker. She believes a walk on the beach will cure most ills. Unlike Rose Haldane, the identity detective in her two novels, Ignoring Gravity and Connectedness, Sandra is not adopted.

‘Connectedness’ at Amazon:
‘Ignoring Gravity’ at Amazon

Author website:
Twitter: @SandraDanby



Photos: © Sandra Danby


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