It was a page left blank in one of the greatest novels of all time, designed to ask the reader to contemplate their vision of beauty.
Now artists, writers and composers including the likes of John Baldessari, Stephen Fry, Lemony Snicket, and Norman Ackroyd have created their own representations of how they imagine the most beautiful woman in the world for a new exhibition at The Laurence Sterne Trust in Coxwold, near Thirsk.
Sterne’s novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, became a bestseller in the 1760s and was ranked the sixth best novel in history by The Guardian.
Famed for its stream-of-consciousness approach that was unheard of at the time, Sterne used a variety of experimental and unusual techniques to convey Shandy’s story, including engaging the reader in interactive games.
In the sixth volume of the book, Sterne intentionally left page 147 blank when attempting to convey the beauty of the love interest of one of the protagonists, Uncle Toby.
Sterne wrote: “To conceive this right, —call for pen and ink— here’s paper ready to your hand, —Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can —as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—‘tis all one to me— please but your own fancy in it.”
It is the third time The Laurence Sterne Trust, which is based at Sterne’s former home, Shandy Hall, has used a narrative technique by the author to invite artists to contribute to an exhibition.
The first, in 2009, invited 73 artists to interpret the page filled with black ink in volume one of Tristram Shandy to convey the death of the character Parson Yorick.
The second, two years later, celebrated Sterne’s marbled page - page 169 in volume three - described by author as the ‘motley emblem of my work’. The printing technique used meant that each marbled page had to be created by hand, and was therefore unique - visual confirmation that his work is endlessly variable, endlessly open to chance.
After both exhibitions, each ‘page’ was auctioned to raise funds for the Trust, and that will happen again with the 143 piece from this exhibition, but with the added twist that the maker of each will be kept strictly anonymous until after the sale.
Shandy Hall curator Patrick Wildgust said: “Laurence Sterne used unconventional devices to to tell his stories. For the death of Pastor Yorick, for example, he simply used the quote from Hamlet, ’Alas, Poor Yorick’ and a black page as he could not find the words to describe the character’s death.
“It was an experimental approach we saw again with the marbled page, which was not printed, so in every copy it looks different.
“In volume six, he asks the reader to imagine Widow Wadman, who is in search of a new husband. What Sterne wants to do is force the reader to imagine how beautiful Widow Wadman is in Uncle Toby’s eyes. He says, ‘paint her in your own mind’, and that’s what I have asked the artists to do.”
Mr Wildgust said the Trust is extremely grateful to the artists, which include six who are exhibiting at the Royal Academy this summer, as not only have they given up their time to create new work to donate, they have done so on the basis of anonymity, and little exposure.
“The responses have been quite astonishing. To attempt to represent beauty is a complicated thing,” Mr Wildgust said.
“Some of the writers have gone directly to the source material and played with the text, others have taken the idea and made it fit their own method of expression, be it an etching or watercolour.
“Sterne writes on the page following 147, ‘was there anything so sweet and so exquisite’, congratulating the reader on their piece. I think he would be equally pleased with what has been created for the exhibition.”
Paint Her to Your Own Mind opens at Shandy Hall in Coxwold on Saturday until September. All the pieces will be included in a blog, accessible via the Trust website www.laurencesternetrust.org.uk
Who was Laurence Sterne?
Laurence Sterne was born in 1713 Ireland, the great-grandson of a former Archbishop of York.
Sent to school in Hippholme, near Halifax, after graduating from Cambridge he took holy orders and became vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest, north of York. He began writing in 1759, and later took on the parish of Coxwold, where he settled at Shandy Hall.
His most famous novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, was published in nine volumes, the majority written from his home Shandy Hall.
A huge hit at the time, and in print ever since. It was made into the film, A Cock and Bull Story, in 2005 starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon and Gillian Anderson.