Friday, March 21, 2014

An Evening With Ross King

By Kim

Those of you who follow our blog may have noticed that we love posting about author events. With two ballerina daughters in constant rehearsal and poor night vision that makes driving a precarious adventure, it’s rare for me to be in attendance. One event I refused to miss was author and art historian Ross King’s lecture at the Highland Park United Methodist Church on the SMU campus on March 18th

My correspondence with King began back in 2009 while he wrote his phenomenal book Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven. His research uncovered mention of a landscape painter named Carl Ahrens who, in 1916, verbally attacked certain members of the Group. Intrigued, King found my website on Ahrens (my great-grandfather) and contacted me, hoping I could shed light on what might have provoked his remarks.

What you can't see is how much he gallantly stoops! *
I replied with a small treatise on the subject and also provided King with primary sources and the photograph of Ahrens featured in Defiant Spirits.  Over the years we've periodically traded e-mails and he has assisted me with sections of my manuscript that involve the Group of Seven and the WWI Toronto art community. I could not ask for a more gracious and knowledgeable expert.

King is a master at bringing art history to life in vivid, novelistic detail. His prose is literary, yet accessible, and never, ever dull. I devoured Defiant Spirits (420 pages) in a weekend. Joan Mora raved about Brunelleschi’s Dome. King’s latest book, Leonardo and The Last Supper, looks equally riveting.

Joan, a fan of all things Italian, also attended the lecture, as did my mother, who happily snapped the photograph for this post. (Thanks, Mom!)

At the pre-lecture reception, King inscribed books and chatted with anyone who came over to introduce themselves. He reminded me of my favorite college professor, a brilliant yet approachable intellectual. Undaunted by the line, he rushed no one. To those waiting behind us, I offer a virtual apology. I know we took more than our fair share of time when he offered to pose for photographs then rather than risk missing the opportunity later.

King spoke eloquently for the better part of an hour about Leonardo da Vinci and the stories behind how he came to paint his masterpiece, The Last Supper. As in his books, King did not shy away from pointing out his subject’s shortcomings. Leonardo’s contemporaries complained he stared at walls more than painted them and was often distracted by seemingly unrelated projects when he should have been working on his commissions. He also grossly exaggerated his expertise to win favor with Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. The Last Supper, contrary to popular belief, is not a fresco. It turns out that Leonardo’s creative process did not allow for working in such a piecemeal and rushed fashion. He experimented instead, which explains why the painting had already started to disintegrate in Leonardo’s lifetime.

If King had notes, I never saw them; he certainly never looked down. This is especially remarkable because he speaks using the same densely rich language in which he writes. At one point I glanced back to see if he used a teleprompter because I thought no one could have such an encyclopedic memory for names and dates. (I stand corrected.) King’s unusual accent, a melding of Canadian and Oxford English, combined with his height, confident tone, and gesticulating hands, make him an especially dynamic and authoritative speaker.

If you ever get the chance to see a Ross King lecture, don’t miss it. You may feel smarter simply being in the same room. I know I did.

* Photo by Deborah Downes


  1. Excellent post, Kim. It was a privilege to meet him and hear him speak. Brilliant speaker. Look forward to reading "Leonardo and The Last Supper". Got such a kick out of watching you and Ross together. Yes, seeing you standing next to each other was quite comical. I was moved by how he tried to compensate for the height difference by scrunching down and leaning towards you.

    1. The funny thing is I had no idea he did that until you told me later!


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