If you spend your childhood visiting museums hoping that paintings could talk to you and tell you their secrets, and then if you grew up hearing stories about your family’s stolen art treasures, a fascinating story is bound to emerge. Author and filmmaker Hannah Rothschild recounts how her experiences inspired her new novel, The Improbability of Love, a richly observed satire of the London art world.
Last spring Jim Cuno travelled to India to meet with partners on a number of Getty-funded initiatives. He also spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the world’s largest free literary event that draws over 250,000 attendees to hear author talks and musical performances. This episode is one of three “Postcards from India” Jim made during his trip.
More to Explore
Hannah Rothschild personal website
The Improbability of Love book
In ‘The Improbability of Love’ by Hannah Rothschild, an Art-World Caper, New York Times book review
Sarah McPhee – Postcard from India 1
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
HANNAH ROTHSCHILD: Running around the National Gallery, I used to look a paintings and wish that they could talk back to me. So many, many years later, when I came to write this book, that became kind of one of the central themes: a talking painting.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with novelist Hannah Rothschild.
In the last episode of this podcast, I reported from the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, India, and interviewed the art historian Sara McPhee. In this follow-up, I’ll be speaking with novelist Hannah Rothschild. I met with Hannah in the authors’ lounge in the Diggi Palace, a noble house that dates from the founding of Jaipur in the 18th century. On my way there, I spoke with students who had come to the festival from Kolkata.
You’re standing in line to have Margaret Atwood sign her books for you?
STUDENT: Yeah, I’m studying comparative literature from University [of] Calcutta. And I have a paper on Canadian studies. We have read a few essays on Margaret Atwood and this is my first book. And I’m actually, like… [laughs]
CUNO: You’re excited.
STUDENT: Yeah, I’m pretty excited, yeah. [laughs]
CUNO: And you come from Kolkata?
STUDENT: Yeah, we come from Kolkata.
CUNO: That’s a long trip.
STUDENT TWO: That’s a very long trip. That’s thirty hours on train and bus.
CUNO: Oh, well, it’s great to have you here. Enjoy your time.
It’s my pleasure to be speaking with the author, filmmaker, and National Gallery of Art board chair Hannah Rothschild, about her most recent book, The Improbability of Love. Welcome, Hannah, and welcome to Jaipur and the Jaipur Literature Festival.
ROTHSCHILD: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here with you, Jim.
CUNO: Is this the first time you’ve been to the festival?
ROTHSCHILD: Indeed, yes. I think you could say I’m a festival virgin. [they laugh]
CUNO: I’m sure it’s put that way by some, but I wouldn’t—it wouldn’t have come to mind myself, but there were are. Okay, so what are your first impressions of the festival?
ROTHSCHILD: Well, having walked in here very recently, it is—it is mayhem, isn’t it? You’ve got people coming from every different direction. You’re expecting to see a camel and a cow, some pigs and everything else, as well, which I haven’t quite seen yet. But you know, it’s—there’s an incredible atmosphere and—so I’m just very proud to be part of it.
CUNO: Are you gonna have time to attend sessions and hear other writers? Or are you booked solid from session to session?
ROTHSCHILD: I’m doing three or four sessions myself, but no, I fully intend to see quite a lot of other people.
CUNO: Well, good. Okay. Let’s get to your book. Now, it’s part art world satire, part mystery, and part sweet tale of love, and it centers on a long lost painting by the turn of the eighteenth century French painter Antoine Watteau. How did you get the idea of the book?
ROTHSCHILD: Well, oddly enough, the book came about from a childish escapade at the National Gallery. My father, who’s an artaholic, used to take us there as children. I think he couldn’t think what else to do with us on a wet Sunday afternoon in London. And running around the National Gallery, I used to look a paintings and wish that they could talk back to me. And you know, they seemed to hang there looking rather beautiful and mysterious, but I wanted them to tell me, you know, what had gone on inside them, what their stories were. So many, many years later, when I came to write this book, that became kind of one of the central themes, a talking painting.
And another theme of it is a kind of Nazi art theft. And that very much ties back to my family’s own history. We had over 3,000 works of art stolen during the war. And some of those came back after the war, but quite a lot of them are still missing. So again, during my, you know, youth and onwards, I kept hearing about these missing paintings. And that’s another thing I wanted to explore, and I put that in the novel.
CUNO: When did the book start to become a book in your mind?
ROTHSCHILD: Well, the book came a book, actually, about twenty years ago. And I was recovering from an unhappy love affair, and I went to write, and it was really as therapy. And I thought, I’m going to write a book. I’d always wanted to write a book, like many other people. So I used those rather long, lonely evenings to write this book. And then it went back in a drawer, quite rightly.
CUNO: Was it a full book at that point, or just a kind of a sketch or—?
ROTHSCHILD: The kind of central ideas, i.e., the Nazi theft, the talking picture and various other things, went into it. But it didn’t work, if I’m honest with you. I tried to make it work at that time, but I didn’t have—I don’t think—I don’t think I had the knowledge and I don’t think I had the confidence, actually, to really wrestle the material to the floor. And then a couple of years ago, having written another book, I thought, I’m gonna get that one out and I’m gonna see if I can do it. And amazingly enough, it came together quite quickly.
CUNO: It’s so complicated it’s hard to imagine that’s true. I’m interested now in the process of writing, in the writing of the book. It’s a complicated story with lots of moving parts. There’s— there’s a successful, perhaps even venal art dealing family with a secret; an earl with family financial problems; an emir of the fiction emirate of al Wabi, whose wife would like to have an art museum; an art historian who’s been victimized by competitive academic art historical politics; an outrageously funny, over-the-top personal stylist who’s trying to shape the public profile of a Russian oligarch named Vlad; a double-barrel-named director of the National Gallery, who’s caught in the middle of competitive and conflicting demands on his time; a hapless advisor to the government minister; a rapper with a surprising taste for old master paintings and not so surprising taste in slim, short-skirted girl arm candies; and a talking, or at least thinking painting, which you’ve already mentioned and of course, the central character, a love-wounded chef with an hysterical drunk mother, who between them find the missing Watteau in a junk shop, lost in a bar, having surrendered it as collateral for a mad drunken evening, and then carrying it around much of London in a basket on a bike, wrapped in a Waitrose plastic bag. Where did you start and how did you keep track of all these characters and their many different voices?
ROTHSCHILD: Well, firstly, can I please have your précis, ’cause when I’m trying to explain to people what it’s about, I can never do it. So you’ve just nailed it, so thank you very much. You know, I’ve lived in the art world since I was very young. I used to make documentary films about artists and about the art world. As you said, I’m now the chair of the National Gallery. I actually worked for an art dealer for a little bit, as one of my holiday jobs when I was at university. So it’s the world I inhabit. And you know, obviously, it’s a little bit dangerous doing a satire about the world you inhabit. But actually, I’m amazed that more novelists don’t base their books in that world, because for me, it’s got a little bit of everything. And one of the interesting things about it is that you’ve got, on the one hand, very, very serious people, who are paid practically nothing, who’ve devoted their lives to the study and the protection and the conservation of pictures. And then on the other hand, you’ve got these rather kind of crazy, over-the-top, you know, over-monied individuals who are trying to buy it. And that, you know, dichotomy, that—that kind of conflict, if you like, between these two different types creates a very fertile ground, I think, for a novelist.
CUNO: Yeah, but it’s still very complicated to keep the voices of the different characters separate one from another and developing separately over the course of the book. So did you develop profiles that you went to as a kind of a resource of each of the characters?
ROTHSCHILD: I write—I’d love to be able to write like that and to be more organized and to actually have—you know, rather like Jane Austen, who used to apparently—you know, every time her—one of her characters took a step, she made a little map, and she followed them through the villages or around the house, whatever it might have been. I’m more instinctive, so I tend to set off and if the character works, I’ll then work on it, and I’ll work on it through the text. And I tried—you know, I then—I tried to rationalize it. I tried to make sure that everything was smooth and every character absolutely spoke in their tongues. And that, for me, comes through editing and re-editing and rewriting and rewriting. For me, it’s a process of rewriting.
CUNO: I read somewhere that you said that you were afraid at certain—at different times in the writing of the book, that maybe you were exaggerating too much in this process of satire, until you would go to the auction house or something, and to see that you really hadn’t exaggerated enough.
ROTHSCHILD: That’s so true. I mean, for anyone who’s been to an auction room—and if you haven’t, for goodness sake, go—you know, you’ll—you’ll go in there and you’ll see the whole of life and you’ll see people behaving in these appalling ways. And you know, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of the great, great art historians and conservators and museum directors and everything else; and I’ve also been lucky enough, actually—because I do think it’s a gift—to have met some of, you know, the oligarchs and the doyennes, if you like, of the art world. And altogether, as I said, you know, there are characters there and there are milieu there, which actually, I find riveting.
CUNO: So you’ve met a lot of people like this; but there must be actual models for some of these figures. Can you—can you actually tell us who? Which ones had models and who the models were?
ROTHSCHILD: Well, one—one model, which I have to be completely straightforward about because he knows it, is Nicky Haslam, who is a kind of decorator-stroke-stylist who works in England, who’s a friend to the stars and always has been. You know, he’s—you know, whether—you know, whether he was a friend of the Vanderbilts or the Rockefellers or the Rothschilds or the Guggenheims or you name it, he’s known everyone. And he fulfills this rather marvelous task, which is that he actually helps people who are newly rich to get a life. So he tells them what to buy, he tells them where to live, he tells them what to put on their beds, you know, et cetera, et cetera. So he was someone who—you know, who I’m very fond of, actually. I made a film about him some years ago. And I would never have a party without asking him, so why write a book which he isn’t it? As for the other characters, you know, I’m gonna be a little bit more circumspect about revealing who they are. They’re certainly inspired by people who I know. But more than that, they’re not necessarily individuals; they’re more types. But what I would say, and I really mean this, it was one—it was only one person in the person who I don’t like. Everybody else, I absolute love. And I would very happily have them to dinner or I wish they were here in Jaipur with me.
CUNO: Do you want to tell us who it is that you don’t like?
ROTHSCHILD: I guess the guy I don’t like is, you know, inevitably, the—the Nazi with a past, you know, I think I have to say. But even in his case, I wouldn’t say I tried to be sympathetic, ’cause I—I wouldn’t feel sympathetic towards—towards somebody who worked in the Nazi party and somebody who stripped many families of their possessions. But I did, I suppose, try and understand what was happening at that time. You know, so I did try and understand that.
CUNO: How many endings of the book did you have?
ROTHSCHILD: Goodness me. But almost too many to count. In fact, the end and the beginning were the really tough bits. And you know, trying to get the finale and the beginning. And in the end, what I tried to do was to open the book with a kind of overview of what was going on, and to close the book in rather the same way. So I felt that the—the kind of or—the readers might need a kind of signposts. I didn’t have the confidence to just straight into the story and jump straight out of it, which I think a more, you know, perhaps an author with more experience might’ve had. So I tried to top and tail it in some way. But you know, beginnings and endings are a nightmare. Absolute nightmare.
CUNO: And you’ve been a filmmaker for some many years and you’ve written a biography. Was it—how different was it to write a book of fiction in which you had overlapping characters, interwoven characters, and developing relationships through the course of the book?
ROTHSCHILD: Well, I think the biography is quite a lot easier, in some respects, in that you’ve got—you’ve got a life. And you have to kind of stick, really, within that life. You know, you can’t go off piece too much, you know. There are parameters and there are events and this, that, and the other. So you’re not worrying too much about where you start and where you finish. And of course, the other thing is that you’ve got to stick slightly to the character. You have to kind of understand that character, and you can, in a way, try and imagine what happened in that real character’s life. But effectively, you know roughly what they’ve done. Whereas fiction, of course, you can go in any direction whatsoever. And actually, I loved it. I mean, I can’t wait to write more fiction and— Although I was trained as a historian, and that was my degree and— Although as a documentarian, of course, I had to stick pretty much to the—you know, to the script. I think it was just an incredible relief to be able to go off wherever you wanted to.
CUNO: Did you have a model for the book? I mean, do you—are you a reader of satires? It seemed to me that one could—now, this is not accurate, but one could—one can make up that—and I was tempted to do so—that it was David Lodge or maybe Howard Jacobson meets Anita Brookner.
ROTHSCHILD: Yeah, well, thank you very much. All three of those, I’ll bank. [laughs] I think funnily enough, you see, I mean, I have—all those three, I love. I mean, I love reading satire. And of course, England has a very rich and strong tradition of satire. You know, whether you’re talking about Evelyn Waugh, Teddy St. Aubyn—there’re all sorts of writers. I mean, I’m not trying to compare myself to them, but those are people who I’ve read and have adored, you know. And you know, David Lloyd. I absolute love that genre. And it’s a way, I think, of being able not to take something too seriously, which of course, the English are longing not to take everything too seriously. You know.
CUNO: So you’re a busy person. And as I said, you’ve been a filmmaker and you’ve established a not-for-profit called Artists on Film. You serve as the chair of the board of the National Gallery, with board responsibilities to the Tate, as well. How and where do you work? How do you find the time to work?
ROTHSCHILD: It’s a bit of a problem, actually. And I’d love to be—even if, I think, if I didn’t have these other jobs, I wonder whether I’d be a nine-to-five writer. I mean, most of the writers I admire get up in the morning, they treat writing like a job. You know, they go to their desk, they stay there, and that’s—that’s what they do. I’m not entirely sure that I have the character or the discipline, in a way, to do that. I—I’m more of a binge writer, if you like. So I love kinda going away and shutting myself away somewhere for a bit of a time. I like being— getting myself to be immersed in the characters. And then when I working, which, you know, is most of the time, on—you know, on my day job, so to speak, then I do it at night or I do it in the morning. So that it’s a bit like having a secret love affair. You know, you try and fit it in wherever you can. [chuckles]
CUNO: I failed to mention that you’re also a mother of three children. That adds a bit more complexity to your schedule.
ROTHSCHILD: Yes. Well, my children are now seventeen, eighteen, and twenty-one, so I feel I’ve just got a little bit more time. In fact, there’s no coincidence that I started writing when my eldest daughter hit sixteen, seventeen. I suddenly—I got the headspace, in some way. I think up to then, I just didn’t have it.
CUNO: So it sounds like you don’t write every day. Do you try to write every day?
ROTHSCHILD: No, but it’s my New Year’s resolution. Which I’ve broken, of course. [laughs]
CUNO: Every year?
ROTHSCHILD: I’ve broken every day so far this year, but—[laughs] I promise you, I’m gonna really, really try.
CUNO: Do you write on a computer?
ROTHSCHILD: Yes. Yes. I write notes in a notebook, and then I write straight into a computer.
CUNO: Do you save all the drafts that you write, or do you eliminate—I mean, is what’s on the computer for, let’s say, chapter ten, all that’s there? Or are there previous drafts of chapter ten also on the computer?
ROTHSCHILD: No, I keep everything. Which of course, occasionally gets me into trouble, because I’ll forget which draft I’ve been working on. And then I’m slightly surprised when, you know, a character I deleted suddenly pops up and you think, oh, hell, where have you come from? [background noise] But I haven’t—I wouldn’t want to throw things away, because there just might be something earlier which I wanted to see I work that one out.
CUNO: You know, there’s some—many things that are quite amazing about the book. The achievement of character development, the complexity—the achievement of the complexity of the narrative itself and the structure of it. But what—the details about the art world—of course, not just the selling of pictures, but also the conservation of pictures—it comes across as very sophisticated. So I assume you spent a lotta time at the National Gallery conservation labs talking to conservators about the conserving of pictures.
ROTHSCHILD: One of my favorite things to do at the National Gallery is to go up into the eaves of the building, where the scientific and the conservation departments are. And there’s a wonderful man there called Dr. Ashok Roy, who I stalk, literally, and—and another one called Larry Keith. And actually, we’ve been very lucky to work with the Getty, in fact, on conserving several pictures. At the moment, there’s the Saint Peter Martyr by Bellini, which is in an incredibly fragile state, which, you know, the Getty and the National Gallery are doing together. And I’ll go up there whenever I possibly can and watch them at work because it’s—it is absolutely extraordinary what great conservators can do now. You know, now they can rescue pictures which you think were beyond hope. And also how they can restore their dignity. You know, later conservators often added, you know, crazy additions or crazy color schemes, or even, you know, decided that the original painter hadn’t done, you know, such a good job. So I think it’s amazing, seeing these pictures restored to their dignity.
CUNO: And perhaps not surprisingly, one of the other great developments in the book is a cook, when the main character becomes a cook. She doesn’t start that way out—she doesn’t start out that way in the book, but she becomes that during the course of the book. And she has to put on, effectively, a Watteau era dinner. So there’s a lot of history of food and food presentation in the book. So that’s something that you’ve been researching for quite some time?
ROTHSCHILD: Yes. I mean, I’m not a particularly good cook, but I’m a magnificently good eater. And so I’ve often thought about how to write about food. And it’s interesting that painters are often very good cooks. I mean, I remember Lucien Freud made me a woodcock once. And you know, the various others painters who, you know, I’ve been lucky enough to know have been fantastically good cooks. So when I was trying to think of a very creative professional for the heroine to follow, I thought, cooking. You know, that’s a—that’s a marv—you know, you can do all sorts of things.
CUNO: And how many years was it at—if you collapse the middle part of the book, in which you didn’t actually write it, ’cause you put it aside and then brought it back out to write—to continue it— In all, was it five years, seven years, eight years?
ROTHSCHILD: Well, as I said, I started it about—I started writing the book about twenty years ago. It went into a drawer, and then I took it out again about four or five years ago and started working on it then. So—
CUNO: So that makes it six or so years.
CUNO: Yeah. In a busy schedule as yours, that’s quite a lot of time. I suppose you have another book in mind?
ROTHSCHILD: The book I’d like to write next and—is actually inspired by a trip to India, which I made thirty years ago, on my gap year. I’m almost embarrassed at how long ago it was. And me and a girlfriend came backpacking around India. We came to Jaipur, in fact. And I wanted to write the story of what happened to us in those intervening years, because our lives could not be more different. And that would be the kind of basis of a new book.
CUNO: Have you started it?
ROTHSCHILD: I’ve started kind of dreaming about it and I’ve made kind of notes. But I think it’s going to be quite a long time. My publisher, don’t tell her, ’cause she’s sitting over there and she keeps saying, “When’s it coming?” [laughs] “Soon,” I say, not daring to admit that I haven’t actually properly started.
CUNO: So I’m a great admirer of this book, The Improbability of Love, great admirer of the previous book about the baroness. And while I imagine you’ve—can’t imagine that you’re following in the—exactly in the footsteps of your aunt, the great aunt, the Baroness Nica, who patronized and perhaps fell in love with the American jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, ended up living in a small house in New Jersey, surrounded by heaps of cats, you seem to admire and emulate her independence. Are you an independent woman?
ROTHSCHILD: [chuckles] Well, I like to think of myself as independent, but if I’m honest, I live in the house that I was born in; I work with my father; I go on holiday with my parents. So it doesn’t sound like I’ve gone really very far away, does it? [chuckles]
CUNO: Except in your imagination.
ROTHSCHILD: I think in my imagination, I go all over the place. And I hope I’m rather independent. But you know, you might look at the coordinates of my life and think, she’s—she could do a little bit— [chuckles] She could be a bit more risqué, perhaps.
CUNO: Okay, I have one more question, ’cause I know you want to get back out into the festival itself. But I wanna talk about Annie, who’s the center figure of the book itself, and who has this aspiring—beginning, developing love affair with this aspiring artist named Jesse, and so forth. And she comes around to, while she’s looking around the museum, doing some research, comes along—across a jade-colored glass bottle. And she sees its label, and it says it was made around 3200 BC, and that it had been buried for 4,000 years, before being rediscovered, or being discovered in recent times.
And she says that its recent discovery and presentation in the museum is a kind of second chance in life, as after those many lost centuries, it was revived and given the chance to make its—work its beauty again in the world. And then she saw this as a kind of metaphor for her own condition, that she too could have another chance in life, just as the lost and now found Watteau painting will be given a second chance. Are you looking for a second chance?
ROTHSCHILD: [chuckles] Ooh, that’s a leading question. Actually, I—I feel very, very lucky at the moment. I think I’ve found—I think I’ve found what I really, truly love doing, which is writing books and actually, funny enough, being quite close to my family, if that doesn’t sound too dull. I really think that I’m rather blessed, and I’m very grateful for what’s going on.
CUNO: Is that second chance the meaning of the title of the book, The Improbability of Love, that there is a second chance?
ROTHSCHILD: Well, yes and no. I mean, The Improbability of Love, the title comes about for two reasons. Number one is that, you know, in lots of Watteau pictures, there are all sorts of kind of—you know, kind of slightly strange and opaque titles. The Embarkation to the Isle of Cythera, for example. I mean, you know, or The Surprise. And actually, most of those titles were given later. I don’t think he actually made the titles for his pictures, but his followers all thought they should have titles.
I mean, The Improbability of Love. I do think that love is quite improbable, I have to be honest with you. I mean, whether it’s romantic love, or whether it’s, you know, finding what you love doing or— You know, I think it’s—I think it’s quite difficult to find it. And when you do find it, I think then you have to be kind of—you know, you have to hang onto it.
CUNO: So the book does end up being, amidst—at the end of a long satirical romp, a very poignant book. Did you intend always, from the beginning, to be—to have it end in this poignant way?
ROTHSCHILD: I hope it’s poignant. I think that in a way, I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to write another book. I think that might be something most authors say, or maybe not. And I thought, if I’m gonna write a book, I’m actually gonna put down what I really feel and what I really believe. And if that’s come out as poignant, then I’m happy about that.
CUNO: Well, you should be. It’s a terrific book. So thanks for the time, and it was great seeing you.
ROTHSCHILD: Thank you very much, indeed.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
HANNAH ROTHSCHILD: Running around the National Gallery, I used to look a paintings and wish that...