A few weeks ago, Ross King, winner of the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction, was asked the question people always ask while he’s flexing his art historian muscles, guiding tourists around the colourful mosaics adorning Ravenna, Italy. The question: who paid for these? “People always ask, and I happily tell them, ‘It was paid for by a fund manager,’ because it was a banker in the year 540 who paid for the mosaic in the cathedral,” he jests. “Without people like that, these works of art don’t happen. I think they’re vitally important.”
King was awarded $25,000 for Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, an exploration of the French impressionist’s tumultuous relationship with his family and his work in his later years, when he suffered from cataracts. Monet was fortunate enough to attain success during his lifetime by selling his works, says King. But the subjects of some of his other non-fiction books — including Leonardo and the Last Supper (2011) and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (2002) — relied on patronage throughout their careers to survive.
The award-winning author of seven non-fiction books and two books of fiction shares his thoughts on winning the prestigious RBC Taylor Prize, the importance of non-fiction in today’s world, and the role of patronage in fostering the arts.
Congratulations. After four RBC Taylor Prize nominations, you’ve finally done it. How does it feel to win the RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction?
In many ways it’s familiar, but it’s also so unfamiliar. The experience of going to the stage and giving a speech was entirely new. I’ve won prizes in the past where you get a phone call, so you know in advance. But I’ve never had this sort of Academy Award moment, where you rise from your seat when your name is called, and then go to the stage. That was an entirely new experience. And also, of course, a wonderful one.
You weren’t always a non-fiction writer. In fact, your first two books were works of fiction. What made you pivot genres?
In 1995, when my first novel was published, non-fiction was not something that would go to the top of the bestseller list or win prizes that people might have heard of. Dava Sobel’s bestselling book Longitude, about the man who created the first accurate marine clock, came out that same year. I remember going to a bookstore and seeing that the top-selling book in Britain was not a novel — it was a work of non-fiction. That stunned me. I started thinking, Yes, maybe there is a market for good, well-written stories that are non-fiction. That was 20 years ago; things are much better now for non-fiction writers, in part because of the prominence given to them through things such as the RBC Taylor Prize.
What are your thoughts about the future of non-fiction as a genre, and its role in society?
We need good journalists, people who write about current events, to produce curated, fact-checked, edited, rigorous non-fiction stories — particularly now, in a world of fake news where people invert things, saying what’s true is false and what’s false is true. There are more people doing that type of journalistic work now than ever before. Beyond that, the future of non-fiction is probably assured because, as human beings, we like stories; that’s our way of understanding the world. Nowadays, I think non-fiction does that as well as fiction.
Being a non-fiction writer seems to require a certain distance between you and your subject. With Mad Enchantment, how did you know when to separate your feelings from those of Claude Monet?
I always identify closely with the people I write about and, for the most part, I like them. Monet was slightly different, however. Everyone else I’ve written about was at an earlier stage of life: with Leonardo da Vinci, I was looking at him in his 40s, and with Michelangelo in his 30s. But with Monet I had to write about the years preceding his death, which was very poignant.
Monet had a number of very difficult years during the war, with shortages, and with his family being away, and being the last of the impressionists. In some ways, I felt guilty knowing that Monet was suffering so much. He would write letters and complain about his situation, yet for me, my heart would almost leap when I read the letters, because I knew this material could go into the book. It’s difficult, but it’s also really rewarding, because those are the stories that you want to be telling.
You mentioned that Monet was a rarity in that he didn’t need arts patronage to survive. What’s the role of awards like the RBC Taylor Prize and others like it in supporting the arts?
Artists need spectators and writers need readers. But even that isn’t always enough — you sometimes need someone else to assist. Corporate sponsorship of the arts is part of this great tradition of arts patronage that goes back to 15th century Italy and beyond. The Italian Renaissance could not have happened in 15th-century Florence if not for the local equivalent of RBC — the Medici Bank. And it wasn’t just the Medici; there were all sorts of banks and merchants who funded the artists and writers who created the Renaissance. They were the ones who essentially wrote the cheques for Brunelleschi, for Donatello, and later for Michelangelo. It’s no good being an artistic genius if you can’t afford the marble or bronze for a statue.