Suspense fiction author Tom Gillespie talks history

Today, the spotlight is on fellow Crooked Cat author Tom Gillespie, whose suspense novel Painting by Numbers is an intricate story about a man's obsession with messages hidden within a painting. That obsession leads him to... well, not giving too much away! ;-) Suffice to say, it's a literary treat for readers who love adventures - and a riddle!

Enjoy Tom's chat about history - and let us know if you agree or disagree! 

Lies, Damned Lies and the Truth about History

History is a fascinating subject, but for me, history is a collection of interesting lies, fabrications and falsities, which have been tenuously patched together by the fallacy of known or speculated evidence. Historians plot out a narrative based on available facts, previous opinion and research to produce a story that may have an over-arching focus, motive, agenda or manifesto. Their thesis might be motivated by politics, science, art, religion and so on. And the purpose I suppose is to attempt to reveal some kind of universal or contemporary truth that an historical event or character might reveal. So from the start, history is a semi- subjective manipulation of past realities in order to serve our present condition, and as a result may have little to do with the experiential realities of the time itself. I dislike it when people describe an historical representation as 'authentic' or a 'realistic portrayal', when there is simply no way of knowing what it was like unless you are actually living in the moment, and even within that moment, the experience is open to historical interpretation, and embellishment… History therefore is already more than half way to fiction.. 

In my novel Painting by Numbers, I enjoyed playing with and manipulating beliefs and assumptions about art and our tacit perceptions of reality. In the book, I invented a fictional 17th Century artist, Manuel Piñero, who became understudy to the Spanish Baroque Master Diego Velázquez. I proposed that it was Piñero and not Velázquez who painted Spain’s greatest artwork Las Meninas, and when he  recognised the genius of the composition, Velázquez ‘appropriated’ the painting from his beleaguered understudy, then ordered him killed so that he could claim the great work as his own. All of this, as far as I’m aware is a complete lie, but my ‘manipulation’ of perceived realities served to present a greater insight into the motives of my central character and help develop the key theme of the book; the complex, interdependent relationship between truth and lies, the genuine and the fake. 

None of this is new, of course. Over the years, writers have been busy turning time upside down and inside out, often resulting in great controversy along the way. This is particularly true when historical events still resonate within the present, as demonstrated by the outcry following the release of The Damned United, a semi-fictional account of Brian Clough’s time at Leeds United football club in the 1970s.  However, for me, there’s nothing controversial about using history to explore the trials and tribulations of life, and in my view,  I can see very little separation between the creative dreamscapes of fiction and the so called rational world presented in history books. 

In many ways I think creative writers are historians; telling tall tales, spinning yarns and peddling lies, but at the same time, continuously interpreting and re-interpreting people, behaviours, events, memories and dreams in pursuit of bigger truths buried deep within the labyrinthian complexities of the human condition. So History is not only just one fucking thing after another, as Alan Bennett so eloquently put it,  but it’s also one big lie after another, and the storyteller has as much right to tell tall tales and twist realities as those who claim to be representatives and guardians of the past.


The painting moves!
Day after day, Jacob Boyce – faltering academic and failing husband – visits a 17th century allegorical painting which hangs in a Glasgow art gallery. By using a series of measurements and calculations, he attempts to create a mathematical theory that will decipher the code locked into its canvas.
As more of the painting’s hidden secrets are revealed, and he meets a mysterious young woman, Jacob’s life spirals into chaos.
The object of his obsession has begun to move.
Painting by Numbers is a dark, surreal thriller that follows one man’s relentless pursuit into an old truth buried deep within.


Painting by Numbers 

In Barcelona, Jacob Boyce finds himself at a talk on Baroque Art given by a Professor Barbola, and later has an opportunity to quiz him on bizarre theory.

 After another round of drinks, the Professor finally arrived, clutching a large glass of red wine and looking a little more relaxed than he did before. Despite his size, he seemed to command the space around him and the drinkers at the bar moved politely out of his way to let him through. José introduced him to Jacob and they shook hands.
“We meet again,” the Professor said.
José raised his glass. “Let’s drink to a marvellous talk. Well done, Professor, you really shook them out of their collective comas tonight.” He glanced at Jacob and winked.
“That wasn’t really my intention.”
“Oh yes, infamy and notoriety can do wonders for the bank account.”
The Professor sipped his wine.
“You’re not wearing a badge, Professor,” Jacob said, looking at his jacket.
“No, my wife won’t let me. She thinks it’s too superficial.”
“Quite right too,” said José between puffs of his cigarette.
“But I do believe the war is unjust and unfair on the dignified people of—” he stopped.
“Aha, another one.” José spluttered out a mouthful of beer, and it dribbled down his shirt onto the floor.
Jacob pressed on with a question. “It was a very interesting talk, Professor Bárbola. Could you tell me a little more about your theory?”
“What is your interest exactly?” the Professor asked.
“Well, I’ve been studying the work of Manuel Piñero for some time. I believe that one of his paintings is hanging in the city art gallery in Glasgow, in Scotland.”
“What’s it called?”
“The Loss of Innocence.”
“Now that’s an interesting painting.”
“You know it?”
“Of course. Do you think it’s a forgery?”
“No, but there are doubts about its creator. Most critics have it down as a lesser known Velázquez, but I think, well, I believe it’s by Piñero.”
“And you are right to think this. In my view, this painting is an original work, conceived and created from beginning to completion by Señor Piñero.”
“You know, Professor, you are the first person I have talked to who agrees with me.”
“Well, not many people agree with me either. So we can be outcasts on our own island together. Salut.” He held up his glass and Jacob sipped his beer.
The Professor continued. “Piñero is a very strange and mysterious character. It may take you some time to unravel the intrigue that surrounded his life. Did you know for instance that he was gay?”
“There is a plausible theory that he and Velázquez were secret lovers.”
José spluttered into his beer. “So now you see, Jacob, why the Spanish people have taken our beloved Professor to the bosom of their tradition-loving, Catholic guilt-laden, conservative hearts.”
“Did you know that he was interested in the occult?” the Professor continued.
“I had read that.”
“And that he had to flee Madrid because he was linked to a series of high profile murders in and around the city; ritualistic killings, torture, all sorts of gruesome things.”
“Was he involved?”
“We don’t know. He vanished for a while, so I suppose it’s only fair to ask, why would an innocent man go on the run? But there is some contrary evidence that he was set up.”
“By whom?”
“His ex-lover of course.”
“Why would he do that?”
“The age old reason, and in many ways rather vulgar, blackmail. Piñero was driven by a desire to ruin Velázquez’s flourishing reputation and he would have done anything to bring him down. So blackmail was a vulgar, yet simple solution. He threatened to reveal to the world and Velázquez’s family the truth about their less than professional relationship.”
“But why? What happened between them?”
“It’s simple. He was jealous. As Velázquez’s fame spread across Europe, Piñero’s talents were being increasingly overlooked and ignored by the powerful and the good. He was disappearing into the shadow cast by his teacher’s forever expanding empire of light and influence. And, of course, Velázquez was extremely arrogant, so he probably tormented Piñero and rubbed his nose in the dirt. Letters show that he was extremely critical of all his students. But it was Piñero who often bore the brunt of the severest of his attacks. Nothing could ever match or surpass the genius of Velázquez or the incalculability of his ego.”
As the Professor talked, Jacob was aware that a circle of people had closed in around them, and they were hanging on his words.
“Piñero faced a relentless bombardment of critical and personal abuse.” The Professor stared directly at Jacob. “His own original works were ridiculed and derided as hopelessly second rate. And not only by Velázquez, but by the King, the aristocrats and courtiers, and those who commissioned paintings. You see, despite his genius, Velázquez’s position at the top of the art establishment tree was highly vulnerable. Fashion is fickle, and he could have been toppled at any moment if the wind had changed along with the trends and ephemeral tastes of the court.”
“I know the feeling,” José interrupted.
The Professor took another sip of wine and continued. “So Velázquez may have looked upon Piñero as a potential rival for his extremely desirable crown. So it was not in his interest to let his protégé’s talents shine too brightly. He would have exerted his formidable influence to ensure that Piñero never rose above the status of a chamber maid. So you can see why Piñero had every right to be angry. He vowed to avenge Velázquez’s success and so became a master forger.”
José winked at Jacob and gestured to the barman for another round of drinks.
“Why would he do that?” Jacob interrupted.
“Velázquez was a great teacher and had taught Piñero how to faithfully replicate his style and techniques, to help him speed up delivery of his commissions and so increase his wealth and social status. He had an extravagant lifestyle and a large demanding family so he needed a healthy income. He was also obsessed with position and power. Yet, despite being the country’s most celebrated artist, he was still considered by many within noble circles as a servant.” José handed the Professor another drink, and after a couple of sips, he turned back to Jacob and asked, “Shall I continue?”
“Please,” Jacob said.
“So Velázquez used his money to aspire to noble status, and his art was his way into the club. It was the magic key that opened doors into the world of the court and inner chambers of the King. Piñero became his third hand, if you like. Velázquez would instruct him to complete paintings and touch up sections of work that he had no time for or forgotten to finish. But what Velázquez didn’t know was that once Piñero had mastered Velázquez’s creative secrets, he had begun building up a supply of forgeries and replica works. Then, when the time was right, maybe once or twice a year, he would make up some tale about a sickly or dying family member in his hometown in Andalucia and that it was his duty to attend to them. Velázquez would reluctantly let him go. But instead of heading south he would travel north to France, Belgium or Holland, to sell his stash of fake but near flawless paintings.”
“Classic supply and demand theory,” José said.
The Professor continued. “When they fell out, he used these honed and perfected forgery
skills to flood the market with counterfeit work and thus reduce the market value of the
genuine paintings. But there was one other thing that Velázquez didn’t know about Piñero.”
“What was that?” Jacob asked.
“He had been secretly working on a painting he hoped would establish him as a major artist and help him achieve fame and fortune. This, I believe, is where Las Meninas comes in.”
“You think Piñero painted it?” Jacob couldn’t quite believe the premise.
“I believe he is the true author of the work.”
José patted him on the shoulder. “Professor, you really know how to make a party swing.”
“But why is it then considered Velázquez’s masterpiece?” Jacob asked.
“Piñero was found out. Velázquez grew suspicious and had him followed, and when he discovered what he was doing, he was incandescent with rage. He felt betrayed and deceived. He denounced Piñero as a thief and a liar, and confiscated the painting. Piñero could do very little. He had no power. All he could do was plot revenge.”
“So you think Velázquez finished it?”
“That is my theory.”
“But where is the evidence?”
“You are familiar with Las Meninas, no?”
Jacob nodded.
“OK, who is the gentleman behind the two girls in the shadows, just to the left of the female dwarf?”
“There’s been a lot of speculation,” Jacob replied. “Isn’t he supposed to be the King’s bodyguard?”
“I see you have been doing your homework, Mr Boyce. Indeed, many have concluded that he must be the Royal Guardadamas. But no one really knows, do they?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“This, I believe is in fact Velázquez.”
“The figure of Velázquez you see today, the artist standing proudly by his easel staring out at the world, posing for the viewer as though waiting to be photographed, I believe this was once Piñero. When Velázquez appropriated Las Meninas, he altered facial characteristics and added details. He effectively swapped places with his student. You see, one of the reasons why Velázquez was so angry with Piñero was because he had the audacity to place himself at the centre of the scene, while Velázquez is relegated to the rear. He was mocking his master. He was saying, you are only as important as the paint on the brush, and when your audience stop looking at you, they’ll all be looking at someone else. The allegory is transformed. It’s more radical, revolutionary even. It becomes a critique of celebrity and
the perils of fame, a premonition of modernity or the post-modern condition. It could even be interpreted as a satirical swipe at the Royal Court of King Philip and, dare I say it, an attack on the state of Spain itself.”
“But where is your proof?” Jacob shook his head.
“It’s all in the perspective and the mathematical relationship between the figures of Piñero, Velázquez and, strangely, the dog in the foreground. Piñero had been working on a mathematical model to create a form of perspective that had never been seen before. And it wasn’t until the invention of cinema that we would be able to replicate such complex trickery of light and line again. He had studied Da Vinci’s use of the Fibonacci sequence to compose scenes, calculate perspective and play with the viewer’s peripheral vision. Are you familiar with this sequence?”
“Oh, Christ!” José exclaimed. “Not another shitty airport novel. Spare us, please!” He lit another cigarette and brushed the ash from his shirt.
The Professor continued. “Good, then you’ll understand the next part of my explanation. He had found, or stumbled on a mathematical formula, a code if you like, that blew apart Fibonacci and his predetermination theory. Velázquez, though a master of perspective still followed classical models, dividing up his paintings into quadrants, with separate yet interrelated focal points, which imitated the way the eyes process perspective. But Piñero was frustrated with the lack of truth in Velázquez’s and other previous representation and interpretations of reality. He began to compile lists of measurements, relative distances between objects, relationships between space, light and structure, and using elaborate charts and models he came up with a series of equations that, when placed in a particular sequence and linked to pre-determined tones and hues generated what can only be described as a unique phenomenon, a number which expanded and contracted randomly above and below the figure of pi. He then began to work on Las Meninas, applying his formula to the canvas, positioning figures and objects in-situ as visual representations of the sequence and assigning appropriate pigments to exact locations within the composition. And, as a result, each element of the formula generated a form of visual magnetic energy, an ability to attract or repel neighbouring objects. It is this tension that creates the intensity of the visual experience. Our mind’s eye somehow tunes into arbitrary shifts in line, light and colour, and it gives Las Meninas its unique sense of fluidity, and the mysterious perception of movement.”
“But that’s just visual trickery, like the Mona Lisa smile,” Jacob interrupted.
“No, it’s more to do with the way the retina of the eye handles light, the relationship between peripheral, low frequency vision and how the fovea centralis.”
“The what?” Jose interrupted.
“A tiny dimple in the centre of the retina that is the most responsive to changes in light.”
“That means I’ve just had my dimple zapped,” Jose said, rubbing his left eye.
The Professor continued. “So it’s all about how the fovea interprets variations and subtle shifts in the refractive source. But in Las Meninas there something more complex going on than that.”
“In what way?”
“We are talking about tangible movement within the structure of the composition.”
“You mean the painting is moving?” Jacob interrupted.
“We don’t consciously see it move, but tiny shifts occur due to tensions and stresses generated by the geometric relationships and interplay of shape, light, line and tone. Rather than multiple foci, the dog is the source, the starting point, or to be more precise the dog’s front right paw.”
“That’s fucking ridiculous.” José shook his head in disbelief. “You’re trying to tell me that Las Meninas is moving?”
“Yes, miniscule, arbitrary shifts in the position of all brush strokes. They are almost
immeasurable because they stretch and recede, within a microscopic timeframe, like tiny
little earthquakes within a nanosecond of time.”

Buy Links:

Amazon UK

Amazon US



wh smith


  1. Never quite looked at fiction in that light before, Tom, but I take your point. And it's a timely reminder when I think about the projects I have up and coming over the next 12 months.

    Great piece.

  2. I'd personally think twice about fictionalising something as recent as Brian Clough's career at Leeds Utd, but I agree that history is already half-way to being fiction. I agree, also, that there is no single "authentic" view of history. I once heard Hilary Mantel say that she would make up the content of a man's heart but not the colour of his wallpaper (the point being that we can quite possibly know how Thomas Cromwell's rooms were, or would have been, decorated, but we certainly don't know what was in his heart - a historian can leave that to one side, a fiction writer cannot).

  3. History is written by the victors .... so quite obviously we don't get a view of what the vanquished thought about it. And how dumb am I? I read PBN and didn't realise that the other painter was invented.
    As in one's own life, a story told often enough "becomes" truth.

  4. Fiction as a work of art or Art and history as a work of fiction. Or the ridiculing of historical belief as an aid in the marketing of a theory on the History of Art. Resurrect King Brian Clough~~~Leeds united need a mythological figurehead.

  5. Excellent interview and excerpt, thanks Cathie and Tom!

  6. I don't accept history as a collection of lies, fabrications and falsities, but the premise is a good hook to snag responses. I do subscribe to the adage: "Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.", attributed to Benjamin Franklin.
    Likewise,the quote regarding interpreting what's in a man's heart and confirming the color of his wallpaper, sounds solid...for an historian.
    Fiction, or faction writers, have leeway to "officially" interpret the facts and present them as entertainments. Whereas, historian are tasked with cobbling together the facts presented in a time-line.
    Academicians deathless prose may account for the high rate of post-luncheon students suffering from facial desk-top imprints, following History 101 lessons.
    I don't think all history records are deliberate fabrications. It could be a reflection of the condition contemporary observers were in, when recording history. Warriors and war corespondents at the Battle of Hastings probably had something more substantial than a Energy Drink to fortify them and give them Dutch Courage.
    Its "possible" King Harold downed one pint too many, fell out of his saddle and brained himself on a chunk of Hasting Rock. Not a very noble end to a kingdom, nor a "Glorious Victory" scene for the tapestry team, needles poised to begin work at Bayeux, to render.
    Even with today's faster (by a year or so) developing illustrations and video-cams on many high-traffic corners, interpreting "the facts" of a video-recorded accident require a jury, eye-witnesses, expert witnesses and a plethora of attorneys.
    So, give the earlier scribes working with wax, chisel or ink, a break... and accept Cecil B. Demill's version of "The Ten Commandments" - as gospel!

  7. I love researching history, but I'm still always aware that what I'm reading in a history tome is the historian's perception of facts that they have personally gleaned, or have acquired from other professionals. When immersed in reading a work of historical fiction I want to be transported to the era in question, the descriptions of people and place grounding the plot. Imagination needs to kick in, but equally a sense of the era is important for me. My own historical fiction has details I've chosen to include from my researches. I'm aware that Tacitus may well have fabricated everything about the Celtic period I'm writing about, he may have intended his writing to be propagandic lies but...what I include will also be my interpretation of his writing.

  8. The distinction we make between "history" and "historical fiction" did not really exist in Roman times. They were as much concerned to entertain as they were to record and disseminate facts. Cassius Dio puts some marvellous speeches into the mouths of his characters. Did Octavian/Augustus ever give the speech he is quoted as giving before the Battle of Actium? Perhaps a copy was kept in the imperial archive and Dio was given access. Did Boudicca give the speech attributed to her on the eve of the revolt? Whatever she did say would not have been written down, and is unlikely to have been heard by any Roman. Dio's version of her speech is a fantastic piece of writing, though, and probably inspired Elizabeth I's Tilbury speech (which she certainly did give).

  9. Fab post, Tom! As a writer who loves history, I try to look at the details I find from different angles, where possible. Sometimes, the 'other' side provides handier snippets for a historical fiction writer to use rather than the known stuff.

    I once wrote an essay about Tudor 'propaganda'. Researching the background was fascinating, but you have to take historical accounts with a pinch of salt. (Richard III is a good example, the issue still splitting historians.) Shakespeare is often mistakenly taken for historical gospel. No, no, no! He wrote plays! Plays that entertained the people, just like the medieval religious plays did earlier, but often people then believed what they saw, not knowing any different. Pretty much like today, then...

    As Cameron pointed out, history is often written by the victors, with the losers demonised. This 'knowledge' remains with the people for decades, if not their whole lives. It was easy to deceive everyone about the validity of the Iraq War, and later the masses cried out, surprised that it wasn't all black and white. Erm, it never is...

  10. PS Thanks to everyone for joining us! :-)

  11. I know it has been said before, but history is very often the 'winning' sides version of events, nothing more. So essentially it is propaganda. Having grown up and been educated in the 'old' South Africa, and having graduated from High School in 1995, just before our history was rewritten, I have first hand experience of just how historical 'fact' can be manipulated to present the image of the past that those in power wish to portray. History, well, popular history at any rate, is almost another form of marketing...selling a past that justifies the present and lays down the ground work for a future as the current powers wish it to be...

  12. Tomorrow's Middle-East history is being created today, via every known media means.
    Same old story - faster delivery method.
    If this wasn't a "College Football" Saturday, the Networks would be filing "Breaking News" stories. That doesn't generate as many Ad Dollars, though!


Post a Comment

Most read posts

Ascent: free on Kindle June 8th & 9th

Welcome romance author D'Ann Lindun

Welcome N. Gemini Sasson, historical fiction author!