A Painter’s Bookshelf: Headlong

May 27, 2022

There are some paintings in the history of art that break free, just as some human beings do, from the confines of the particular little world into which they were born. They leave home—they escape from the tradition in which they were formed, and which seem at first to give them significance. They step out of their own time and place, and find some kind of universal and enduring fame. They become part of the common currency of names and images and stories that a whole culture takes for granted.  

—Michael Frayn, Headlong
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565

Michael Frayn’s Headlong (1999) is one of my favorite contributions to the artwork in fiction genre for its witty, thoroughly engaging tale of an easily distracted and ethically challenged philosopher, who convinces himself that he has discovered a “lost” Bruegel. 

Headlong pits the distinctly unheroic Martin Clay against his aristocratic neighbor. Residing temporarily in the country to work on a long-delayed book, Clay and his wife are invited to dine with Tony Churt, the penurious squire next door. In the process of opining on a few of Churt’s Baroque paintings, Clay views a grimy canvas stored behind a firescreen in the tattered estate’s breakfast room.

It’s a thrilling moment. Readers familiar with Bruegel will appreciate Clay’s description—

The high air is still cold, but as you move down into the valley the chill dies away. The colors change, from cool brilliant greens to deeper and deeper blues. The season seems to shift in front of you from April into May as you travel south into the eye of the sun. Among the trees just below me is a group of clumsy figures, some of them breaking branches of white blossom from the trees, some caught awkwardly in the middle of a heavy clumping dance. A bagpiper sits on a stump; you can almost hear the harsh pentatonic drone. People are dancing because it’s spring again and they’re alive to see it. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Haymaking (Early Summer), 1565

Though an admitted hack when it comes to art history, Clay nonetheless pompously declares (to us, though not to the picture’s owner): “I recognize it instantly.” In the next breath, he qualifies: “I say I recognize it. I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never seen even a description of it. No description of it, so far as I know, has ever been given. No one knows for sure who, if anyone apart from the artist himself, has ever seen it.”

One minute Clay acknowledges that he is “way out of his period with this one” and in the next he manages (in flowery abandon) to persuade himself of the painting’s authenticity:  “Already, even as I look at it in those first few instants, what I’m contemplating is not the picture but my accumulated recollection of it. . . All the same I know. It’s a friend, No, it’s the long-lost brother of a friend. A long-mourned child walking back into our lives the way the dead do in our dreams.”

Pieter Bruegel, Return of the Herd, 1565

Delusions of grandeur sweep over Clay. He imagines himself as the cultural commando who will rescue this public treasure from private obscurity. Fame and fortune are not far behind in his thoughts.

I feel a flash of pure savagery. I’m going to have his property off him. He can’t make good his claim to it. It’s written in a language he can’t read, because the only language he can read in his necessity is money. If he knew what it was, he’d hold the world to ransom. And if the ransom wasn’t forthcoming, he’d sell it to any money that presented itself—to a Swiss bank, an American investment trust, a Japanese gangster. It would vanish even deeper into the darkness, even further from the light of common day. . .

. . So I’m going to have it off him. I’m not going to do it by deceit. I’m not going to stoop to the kind of methods he might use himself. I’m going to do it by boldness and skill, in full accordance with the rules of war.

Pieter Bruegel, Hunters in Snow, 1565

With the stage thus set, the remaining 290-odd pages present a pyrotechnic extravaganza of storytelling. The elaborate scheme Clay conceives unfolds.  Though a reader will realize early on (spoiler alert!) that this scheme can only end in failure, he or she will be gripped by the twists and turns of the plot until the denouement.

Success of Clay’s scheme depends on authentication of the painting. Equal in skill to the plot manouevering is the deftness with which Clay/Frayn, though painstaking research, fashions a highly readable and educational tour through the critical canon on Bruegel’s life and works (and politics), 16th-century Nederlandish art, and the Spanish subjugation of their Dutch and Flemish lands.

Turns out, the canvas of Headlong is based on a real painting, one missing from Bruegel’s most famous (and only surviving) cycle of paintings, commonly known as The Seasons. In Bruegel’s day in the Lowlands the year would have been broken into 6 seasons: winter, early spring, spring, early summer, late summer, autumn. The six paintings of the cycle were completed in 1565 for a wealthy Antwerp merchant,  Nicolaes Jongelinck.  By 1659, the set had been broken up and one was already missing. Five in the set survive —e.g. Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, Hunters in Snow, Haymaking, and The Harvesters.

Pieter Bruegel, Gloomy Day, 1565

The novel closes with an astute observation that could well apply to scores of other works of art:

And what happened to the pictures themselves, those six historyless panels painted as the torrents of history swept around the studio door in 1565? They were swept headlong into the current like everything else, and tumbled into the world’s changing politics. 


3 surviving “Seasons” paintings in the Kunsthistorishes, Vienna

Bruegel’s “Late Summer” in MMA, NYC

Bruegel’s “Early Summer” in The Lobkowicz Palace, Prague

More Bruegel in the Museo del Prado, Madrid


“In Love with Multiplicity”—Joseph Leo Koerner reviews Bruegel show at Kunsthistorishces.

The Stay at Home Museum (video)—Breugel, Royal Museum of Fine Arts exhibit

Life imitates art:  “When Overlooked Art Turns Celebrity”—Michael Kimmelman’s musings on the very real The Wine of St. Martin’s Day, a “lost” Bruegel rescued in 2010 by the Prado from the “proverbial dark corner” of a collection in Córdoba.

Ian Buchanan—“The Collection of Niclaes Jongelinck: The Months by Pieter Bruegel”

More novels involving painting—James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManJoyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth; Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake; Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved; Tracy Chavalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring

A Painter’s Bookshelf reviews

Liz Hager

2 responses to “A Painter’s Bookshelf: Headlong”

  1. Nina Katz says:

    “Headlong” is my all time absolute favorite novel. I read it several years ago and could not put it down. Michael Frayn is brilliant in creating tension in such a low action plot. I found myself screaming out loud, “don’t do it!” or “do it!”. At the time I read it I did not know much about the paintings themselves and the so called missing Bruegel and was thrilled therein to explore more Bruegals and Frayns’!

    • lizhager says:

      I admit it’s one of the few books I’ve read more than once; it doesn’t disappoint! It’s a trick I think to create a character which a reader finds both arrogant and pitiable.

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