“Versatility is one of the few human traits which are universally intolerable. You may be good at Greek and good at painting and be popular. You may be good at Greek and good at sport and be wildly popular. But try all three and you’re a mountebank. Nothing arouses suspicion quicker than genuine, all-round proficiency.”
— Game of Kings
While her readers recognize and celebrate her published written works, Dunnett’s books came later in her life. Her first priorities were her family. She and Alistair raised two sons: Ninian and Mungo.
At the same time, Dorothy established herself as an artist in portraiture and sculpture. This versatility honed her talents for defining and shaping characterizations and depth in her subjects reveals itself in her writing later. Her skill in observation and layering transitioned into prose that paints and sculpts her characters in sharp definition, in canvas, clay and ink. Music was of great consequence to Dorothy, a personal passion that surfaces in her writing, where it influences meaning and intensity of emotions, layer on layer. She was a huge fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Dunnett the Portraitist
As a teenager, Dorothy loved sketching and painting watercolours and dreamed of pursuing a career as an artist. The outbreak of World War II quickly put an end to her aspirations, but after the war she found her way back to the arts and began taking evening classes at the Edinburgh School of Art. After she and Alastair married and moved to Glasgow, Dorothy continued studying, this time at the famous Glasgow School of Art where she continued to learn into the 1950s.
Dorothy’s love of art was clear as was her talent as a portraitist. One of her early self-portraits, a pencil sketch done in the 1940s, is now at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland. She began to exhibit works at the Royal Scottish Academy in the 1950s under the name Dorothy Halliday.
Her family were also frequent subject, especially her husband Alastair. In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Sue MacGregor in 1991, Dorothy was asked about why she had so many portraits of Alastair:
BBC: I’ve seen your home, just a few yards away lots of portraits of Alastair – going up the stairs – Alastair in his kilt, Alastair in an oilskin.
Most of the portraits in the Dunnett family home were of Dorothy’s husband, Alastair
DD: Yes, Alastair looking bored in almost everything, because the only pictures that you have … you know all your commissioned pictures are obviously with the owners, so all you have left are the family pictures. I was always dragooning small children, when my kids were small, because I try to exhibit in the Royal Scottish Academy every year and I get a picture of Alastair or a picture of one of the kids. I remember one year I put my three-year-old in and the door bell rang one day and there was a charming lady, with two very sweet children, one aged three and one aged five, saying, “I want you to paint my children”. I said, “Ah, well, I am afraid, actually, I don’t paint children”. And she said, “Yes, you do. You have a picture of one in the Royal Academy!”. And I said, “Well, yes, but that was mine.” And she couldn’t see the distinction, which was I can hammer mine if its not sitting still. I cannot do the same to someone else’s. But in fact, I did paint them. I then had a nanny, who would stand behind me with glove puppets and things and kill herself keeping the children quiet until I got the painting done. But now I strictly do adults only, I can tell you.”
Perhaps a little surprisingly, she only ever painted one of her characters from her novels: Archie Abernethy, from the Lymond books. The image has been much-loved by her readers and fans and has appeared on the front cover of the Dunnett Society’s magazine, Whispering Gallery.
Sue MacGregor asked her, “Could you paint one of your heroes from your imagination?” Dorothy answered:
“Oh, I have been asked to do that often, but if you look in the room that we are sitting, along at the end, there is a painting of a broken-nosed man, with an elephant behind him. That is the only picture I have ever done of any character in my books, because to do Lymond and Niccolò is not a good idea. People have their own idea of what the heroic figure is like and it is not right, even for me, to spoil it. So, okay, forget that.
But, a man in Canada once wrote to me and said, “I want you to paint me a portrait, which I will commission, of anyone in your books. Not,” he said, “Lymond”, which was the series he had read, but he said, “I rather like Archie Abernethy, who is the elephant tamer, but choose someone else if you would prefer somebody else”.
So I thought, ‘Archie Abernethy – he is bald, he’s got a scar, he’s got a broken nose – who do I know . . . ‘ I don’t actually, so I sat watching boxers, to get the broken nose, on the television. And I got a picture of an elephant, and I put together this painting, and actually it was rather fun, of this little man called Archie Abernethy. I wrote to Canada and said, “Sorry it has taken so long, but it is finished and I am coming to the States next week and would you like me to send it up to you from there, or what?”
I got a letter back saying, “I am very sorry, but my husband, who wrote to you about the picture, died earlier this year and I am afraid I have no use for a portrait of Archie Abernethy”. So, it was very sad, and that is the reason why that is the only one I have done and why I still have got it.
In Alastair’s autobiography, Among Friends, he recalls the painting, somewhere between fond and perplexed: “There he stands now in our little gallery, with his broken nose and tough half-bald look, the wee man from Fife who intended that the court of France would believe him to be a Turk; and behind him there looms an authentic sixteenth-century elephant.” (Dunnett, Alastair. Among Friends: An Autobiography, London, Century Publishing, 1984.)
Besides, as she wrote in Checkmate, “Elephants gave you less bother, any day.”
Dorothy may not have chosen to immortalise her most famous characters in portraiture but her passion for painting is evident in her writing. The way she describes people and places is with a painter’s eye for texture and capturing vistas in a moment of suspense. She told Sue MacGregor:
“Yes, well, I paint and therefore my imagination is, I think, a visual one and when I am setting a scene or inventing a dialogue, I try to imagine the room or the place where it takes place exactly, what the movements of the protagonists are, how their clothes are falling. You must not put in too much of that but, I think, if you have it in your own mind’s eye, you can flesh out the dialogue and I try to present a dialogue where the reader has to read the motivation behind it. I do not explain too much. But the movements explain and the setting explains and, therefore, the visual element counts a lot in what I am trying to do.”
There are so many passages that could illustrate this, but here is one with a particularly spine-tingling quality:
Late that night, the seven ships under Thorfinn stole their way into an anchorage and, making fast, lay locked together, gently rocking in silence while the men slept. Then the blackness around them turned to tablets of black and less than black and somewhere, a long way off, a blackbird announced a cherried sentence and the watch on each ship, stretching, began to move bending from man to man. The wind had dropped.
They entered Loch Bracadale with the sunrise, rose-coloured oars laying darkling folds on the rose-tinted pool of the fjord. A dusting of guillemots, asleep on the water, roused and dived with almost no sound, leaving pink and verdigris rings on the surface. A charcoal rock needled with cormorants became suddenly bare, and from the shore came the scalloped cry of an oyster-catcher, joined after a moment by the others. Then the longships slid past, and the sounds died away.
With no sound at all, but with a glory that bludgeons the senses, the furnace doors were thrown finally open, and the spires and pinnacles of the mountains of Skye stood suddenly stark before them, against mighty rivers of scarlet and brass. On Thorfinn’s ship, no one spoke. The grey goose flamed, and its shadow moved, shortening. ‘On such a day,’ Thorfinn said, ‘it would not be a hardship to die.’
— King Hereafter (chapter 17, p 164, Vintage Books 1998)
Sunrise over Loch Carron, by William Gray at the Lanark Camera Club
Dorothy’s work as a painter connected her to a variety of people and situations. One odd occasion she recounts: “Years ago, locked one night in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle to paint the Crown Jewels, I was first electrified and then greatly moved by the sound of Welsh choral singing, faintly reaching my eyrie through the three-ton Chubb-locked door.” (From Woman and Home and republished in Whispering Gallery.)
When interviewed around the publication of Caprice and Rondo, Mary D. Pinto of Romance Communications asked, “Which is more fulfilling for you, portrait painting or writing?” To which Dorothy replied:
“They are about equal. When I am doing one, I can’t image myself doing the other. If I’m painting a portrait, I’m terribly excited about it. I can see it coming. I can see the thing taking shape, and I want to go on and do it. When I am in the middle of a book — I used to think I could do them both at once, you know, I could have a client in the morning and then I could work in the afternoon writing. It isn’t possible. For one thing, I’m talking all the time when I am painting; you have to put your sitter at ease. And eventually get them to do the talking. In the last sittings, they talk to you. It is very rewarding; it’s very informative, teaches you a lot about human nature, which I can use in my books. But if I do that, then I don’t have — I lose too much energy. I couldn’t write in the same day. The kind of complicated books I write, I need to have days and days and days in sequence. …”
Dorothy recounted to Sue MacGregor: “If I’m painting, I don’t want to do anything but paint – and if I’m writing, I don’t want to paint. But then my day and my week is so broken up… my diary is full of things. I can’t sink back and say, ‘Right, I’m going to spend the next two weeks in the arms of Niccolò’, or whatever, because I know I’m not.” (Interview excerpt published in Miraculous Mirror, pp.20-23)
Throughout her life, Dorothy painted with words and told vibrant stories with her art. The dynamism and talent she had shone through in both the literary and visual medium, making her all the more fascinating as a creative mind.
A Life of Music
Dorothy was a lifelong patron of musical arts and her writing shows her deeply musical sense of language. She was a great fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as opera. From among the scores of musical references in the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolò series, the Edinburgh Renaissance Band released an album in 2000 to celebrate the music of the books, on the occasion of the publication of Gemini.
Honours and Achievements
Assistant press officer, Scottish government departments, Edinburgh, 1940-46
member of the Board of Trade Scottish Economics Department, Glasgow, 1946-55
She was educated at the James Gillespie School for Girls – only a few years after Muriel Spark who based her famous novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on the school. Dorothy Halliday excelled at languages, and received her certificate in 1940.
At the outset of war, sixteen year-old Dorothy embarked on her career in civil service in the Scottish Office, working as a typist, thinking the job would afford her plenty of time for painting. She found some time for art, but mostly she found love, when she met her husband-to-be,
Also at the Scottish Office was a young journalist, adventurer and playwright: Alastair Dunnett. He was the new press secretary for the Scottish Secretary of State. After the war, the friendship they'd struck during their professional time together stuck. They were married in 1946.
Newlyweds Dorothy and Alastair moved to Glasgow, where Alastair worked as the editor of the Daily Record. They moved back to Edinburgh when Alastair became editor of The Scotsman in 1956. They had two sons, Ninian and Mungo.
Dorothy Dunnett begins writing her first novel – The Game of Kings, first of the Lymond chronicles, published in 1961. The series follows the daring, dashing, dubious Francis Crawford of Lymond, from Scotland to Russia and nearly everywhere in between. More about the Lymond books here.
Dorothy was also a great writer of mysteries, penning a series about portrait-painter-turned-spy Johnson Johnson and his yacht, Dolly. The first book, Dolly and the Singing Bird, was published in 1968, under the name Dorothy Halliday.
To mark the publication of the final book of House of Niccolò a gathering was organised in Edinburgh, which was attended by Dorothy Dunnett, who gave the keynote speech. This was followed by a gala meal for 300 attendees in the great hall of Stirling Castle.