The Master of Bruges

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in Bookworm

The Master of Bruges

Book Review:  The Master of Bruges (and of London, too!)

Terence Morgan, The Master of Bruges.  Pan Books, London, 2011.  ISBN 978-0-230-74413-4 (paperback)

First I would like to thank Heather, who told me about The Master of Bruges and awakened my interest in it.

This novel purports to be the memoirs of The Master of Bruges, the painter Hans Memling, who lived and worked in Burgundy though he was born in Germany.  From December 1460 to his death in 1494 we share Memling’s loves and adventures and through him we meet many of the people who are of significance to anyone interested in the late medieval period.  Obviously the Burgundian court of the time features strongly:  Charles the Bold, his wife Margaret of York, his daughter Marie and later her husband Maximilian.

However, the author weaves the fact that Edward IV and his brother Richard spend their exile during the readeption of Henry VI 1470/71 in Burgundy into his story and has the brothers and their small circle of friends staying at Memling’ house for a few days.  Thus the painter becomes directly involved with the Yorkist court.  To finish a triptych for Sir John Donne he eventually travels to England just in time to be a witness to the events which interest Ricardians so much:  he arrives in late 1482 and stays until 1485.  When he first arrives, he is also commissioned to paint Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville as well as Richard of Gloucester.  The reader then experiences with Memling the eventful period from Edward’s death, through Richard’s reign until Henry VII takes the throne.  During this time, Richard as well as his nephews freely share their thoughts with the painter.

The story is interwoven with short chapters, where Memling explains aspects of artistic technique, which are reflected in the incidents described in the chapters following.

All the main characters in the novel are historical persons and most of the paintings mentioned still exist.  Memling really did paint a triptych for Sir John Donne.  There is indeed a suggestion that Memling had painted the portraits of both Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.  As the portrait of Richard could be seen as a companion painting to that of Richard, then Memling would have had to paint this one, too.

The story is a fast-paced amd entertaining read.   Any Ricardian reader will be pleased to hear that it is strongly sympathetic to Richard.  The view of medieval affairs might in some instances be a bit simplistic, as for instance when the author has Sir John Donne explain to Memling the nature of the Wars of the Roses:  “The English do not make war in the same way as other nations.  The aristocracy attack and kill each other, make captives and demand ransoms, but the ordinary people are left alone”.  Considering that in the Battle of Towton approx. 1% of the English population at the time died, it would seem to me that  a fair share of the ordinary people were very much involved.  However, in spite of this minor quibble, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and can only recommend it.  It also made me interested in finding out more about Hans Memling and his work.  A book I could not put down!

To see Memling’s art, go to http://www.hansmemling.org.

Note: The above review has been updated in light of Terry Morgan’s comments.

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4 comments so far


I am the author of this work. Thanks for the lovely comments, and I accept the quibble about Towton — mea culpa! (Of course, I could just say that was John Donne’s opinion, as I did when someone objected that I’d buried Edward IV in the wrong chapel!)
The reviewer says, though, “However, there is no evidence that Memling had any connection to the Yorkist kings or ever visited England, let alone that he painted any of pictures of them referred to.” In my defence, I took my information from “Memling’s Portraits” by Till-Holger Borchert (Ludion Press, 2005), where he suggests (pp.55-6) that both Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville were painted by Memling (I added Richard in myself!). However, Borchert says that these portraits were painted during Edward’s time in Bruges in the winter of 1470-1. I take issue with this; I imagine Edward would have had far more important things on his mind than sitting for a portrait, and in the case of Elizabeth it is quite impossible, as she was in Westminster Abbey giving birth to Edward V at the time (and indeed is not known ever to have left England again). This being the case, if Memling painted her portrait then he must have done so in England, so I simply used the Donne portrait to get him across the channel.
I have some ‘learned notes’ which were left out of the final published version of the book; these give references for the paintings and explain why and where I have deviated from accepted historical interpretation. If anyone would like a copy, please e-mail me at TerryMorganMGS2@aol.co.uk and I’ll be happy to let you have them.
Hope all NSW Ricardians enjoy the book (a sequel, ‘The Shadow Prince’, will be out next January).

April 18th, 2011 at 0:56
Dorothea Preis

Thank you, Terry, for your interesting comment. I stand corrected and freely admit my ignorance. It’s fascinating to think that Memling had painted the portraits. It’s a good assumption that if he painted Edward’s portrait he would have painted Richard’s, too, as those two portraits very much go together. Looking forward to the sequel!

April 18th, 2011 at 8:45
Allen C. Klein

Hi from Alsace, As a lover of Memling, and historical biography, I wonder if you could advise me how to get a copy of the Master of Bruges here in Alsace. I would really love to read your book(s). Thanks in advance, Allen

July 24th, 2011 at 1:42
Dorothea Preis

Hi Allen, Thank you for your interest in our website. I trust you will understand that we – being in Australia – do not know about the availability of books we reviewed in Alsace. However, when it comes to obtaining English language books which are hard to source locally, we usually resort to ordering from a mail order distributor like the Book Depository or Amazon. I hope this will assist you.

July 24th, 2011 at 15:46

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