Australian writer Lisa Medved chooses Antwerp as the setting for her first novel.
Feud between Lucas Vorsterman and Rubens is food for thriller.
Who was Lucas Vorsterman, and why was he arguing with Rubens? Australian literary debutante Lisa Medved sheds light on it in her historical thriller De Graveur set in seventeenth-century Antwerp.
Although Lisa Medved has already travelled to fifty countries, her literary debut is set in Antwerp. “As a historian, I am particularly fascinated by the 17th century,” says the Australian, who has been living with her family in The Hague for fourteen years. “When I visited the Rubens House, I was intrigued by an engraving by Lucas Vorsterman (1595-1675). From 1618 to 1621 he was employed by Rubens as an engraver. A disagreement over copyright would have ended their collaboration. I did research, but couldn’t find much about it. I wondered what it would feel like to be employed by such a world-famous painter. I have spun an exciting story around that.”
Originally De Graveur was written in English, even if the thriller was first published by a Flemish publishing house. “The manuscript was spotted by a scout in London,” says publisher Geert Cortebeeck of Horizon. “We rarely have books translated, but this thriller about Rubens caught our attention. The more so, because the painter is not so often portrayed in novels. The exciting, smoothly written story also appealed to us. Lisa Medved connects the present with the past.”
In De Graveur, the stories of art historian Charlotte and the 17th-century engraver’s daughter Antonia are mirrored together. Their lives originated from Medved’s fantasy, but they start from the disagreement between Rubens and Vorsterman. “When you think of the Baroque master, you don’t immediately think of graphic work. Nevertheless, many of Rubens’ paintings have been converted into prints by engravers, often at a remarkably smaller size than the original. This allowed Rubens, who was also a diplomat, to take copies of his paintings to foreign nobles and royal courts. The engravings illustrated his abilities and grew into a marketing tool.”
Rubens was not the only painter who hoped to win commissions for his studio elsewhere, but he had stipulated that he would receive the copyright for his current and future work. “His engravers were therefore not entitled to copyright. Vorsterman became increasingly displeased because he was treated like a simple copyist. By 1621, the Dutchman was working exclusively for Rubens and began signing his engravings with his own monogram. That was not to the liking of Rubens, who wanted the engravings to express his style, and not that of the engraver. There was a fight and Vorsterman left for England, where he worked for Anthony Van Dyck.”
Apart from historical figures such as the Dutch mapmaker Frederik de Wit or Rubens’ colleague Frans Snyders, De Graveur also pays relatively much attention to Clara Peeters, a lesser-known artist. “She made beautiful paintings, but her work received much less attention, because as a woman she was not allowed to join the Guild of Saint Luke. Antonia, one of the two female protagonists, also wanted to be more than a married mother. In her desire to become independent and to draw maps herself, she mirrors herself to Peeters and other female contemporaries.”
Medved has visited Antwerp numerous times. Some scenes in her novel are set at the university, on the Grote Markt or in the Begijnhof. In De Graveur, it is still the beguines who hold the reins. “My favourite place is the Plantin-Moretus Museum. That is where the cradle of the printing press is located. Antwerp has so much to offer international visitors. I hope my book can convey that.”
Gazet van Antwerpen, Thursday 24 February 2022, page 36 – Ilse Dewever