Acclaimed author Neil Hegarty (Inch Levels) introduces his new novel The Jewel, which hits bookshops this week...

The Jewel tells the story of a painting: the creation of a Victorian artist, Emily Sandborne, whose work is neglected in her own time. She names her painting The Jewel: and for decades, for a century after her death, her piece and her reputation in general continue in the shadows, until fate and fashion intervene and make artist belatedly famous – and her painting priceless. When the novel opens, The Jewel has become the central and most conspicuous ingredient of the Dublin gallery in which it has been quietly hanging for years – but now it is the target for a collector, who desires it for his own hoard.

This is the centre of the novel as it originally presented itself to me: this fictional artist, her painting, her legacy. The story brings together three characters whose lives and destinies intersect with The Jewel: the thief, whose task is to steal this painting and deliver it safely to his client; the curator, who feels a powerful bond with the painting and with Sandborne; and the art investigator, whose job is to track down and retrieve The Jewel, and bring it safely home. A little research online conveyed to me just how common art theft actually is – but how best, I wondered, to convey the meaning of the painting itself?

As I wrote, and rewrote, and plotted and planned, I realised that I didn't want to set out in black and white – as it were – The Jewel as a realist painting, or an abstract painting, showing this or that scene, crisply conveyed. Instead, I wanted to offer a general sense of the piece – but to leave it to the reader to complete the process, to have a sense of a painting fired to life by her or his own imagination brought to bear.

And so I introduced elements – ingredients, the character of The Jewel. Darkness and light, flashes of colour set against profound shadow. In the course of a visit to Rome, I went to the church of Santa Maria del Poppolo, where a pair of Caravaggios hang in a side chapel; and the form of the painting consolidated itself further. When I returned home, I fished out the poem In Santa Maria del Poppolo by Thom Gunn: ‘I see how shadow in the painting / brims with a real shadow…’ – and The Jewel became yet more clear in my mind. A slow formation – and it is today a clear vision, for me. My original impulse, however, which was to offer a sense of the painting to the reader and to the reader’s imagination – this remains intact.

The following passage from The Jewel offers a glimpse of Emily Sandborne’s creation, hanging famously in a fictional Dublin gallery. I hope that in reading it, the painting will begin to come alive in your own imagination and heart.

A fortnight passed. At the end of this fortnight, the gallery reopened – the great reopening, they said acidly in the fetid staff room, as they observed the axe-blow frown between Dr Read’s eyes, the ultimate in reopenings – and Roisin saw Gerard again. It was, yes, his role in proceedings to conduct some of the public tours of the gallery spaces: of the halls and great vaulted rooms and courtyards now resplendent in the colours and papers selected by Roisin herself, and now to be seen by the people for the first time.

Rather him than me, Roisin thought.

Already she had had her fill of this reopening business. Receptions and warming white wine, mini-spring rolls and mini-chicken skewers, complete with a peanut dipping sauce, and mini-blondies and -brownies, and an endless din of congratulatory conversation – they all made her want to dash her brains out against one of her own lapis walls. Having to conduct up to eight tours a day would have been the last straw.

Gerard, though, appeared not to mind the process too much. To be sure, the halls rapidly became airless, overstuffed and overheated – an exalted version of the staff room – and these crowds ensured that nobody would receive the experience of their dreams: but Gerard seemed to keep his cool, to maintain a semblance of grace in the midst of this atmosphere of fart and egg sandwich, body odour and damp wool.

Roisin saw him on the second tour of the opening day: the crowds already peaking, the crush dreadful. There was a pack on the long, white stairs, sharp elbows and snippets of conversation as she tried to elbow past. ‘Oh, ages and ages,’ one fur-coated woman said to her companion as they swept past, ‘it’s been closed for ages and ages; I’m dying to see what they’ve done with it. Apparently, it cost a mint, a mint.’ Roisin abandoned her attempt to gain the top of the stairs independently, allowed herself to be carried along with the crowd, her feet hardly touching the floor, noticed two of the security guards pinned against the walls – and then saw Gerard apparently in charge of this throng of humanity.

A Pied Piper, leading them up and in.

‘Just follow me, please,’ he said lightly – but his voice carried surprisingly well, and his flock seemed disposed to obey. Let’s have a look at this, Roisin thought, and was carried on and in, coming to rest at last in the Sculpture Court. How beautiful it looked! – even on this packed day, and her heart swelled with something like pride. And how fine the painting looked,

suspended there against her green silk walls, below the welling white light. The pools of shadow, the gleaming eyes, the bars of black light. Let’s see this.

Gerard turned to face the swelling crowd, began to talk. The buzz of conversation died away.

‘Pauldron,’ he said, and Roisin watched as he began to speak.

‘Notice the gleam of the pauldron,’ Gerard said. He held a pointer in one hand: was it nerves? – for he was pushing its tip into the palm of his other hand. He was wearing a polo neck, fine merino, light grey; and perspiration at his armpits was darkening the wool. ‘The pauldron: it’s almost the centrepiece of the whole painting,’ Gerard went on, ‘perhaps I shouldn’t single out one feature like this, but’ – and here he paused for a moment, ‘it’s really how I feel.’

Roisin had been preparing to feel pity for the boy – a mere boy, really; too young for such a task; what was Read thinking about? and that sweater ruined, surely – but now she saw that pity was not in this case required. Gerard had their attention. He didn’t give a damn about his wet armpits.

Maeve, again.

The crowd grew further, filling the broad spaces between the white marble statues, the boy talked on. ‘Not the figures, not their expressions. Just his pauldron; it’s the gleam of the pauldron that catches my eye every time. That catches in Sandborne’s colours. She’s looking behind their humanity, the artist is, do you see? – she’s breaking down the machine.’

He stopped, then, and turned, and gestured with the pointer, and all eyes followed its tip, to look at the purity of green and blue and red and yellow, the bright, blazing trail of white on black.

‘And now look at the foot hanging down, look at the sole, the heel, do you see it?’ – and he ran his hands through his red hair. ‘There,’ he said, and the pointer stabbed higher, ‘just the sheer humanity of it. The hard skin, the leathery sole, the dust.’ He looked, Roisin looked, they all looked, at this hanging emblem of humanity, at the shining light and the darkness, at the slash of the pauldron, and the glimmering lamps, brightness and darkness against jet. ‘A beautiful combination of darkness and light,’ he said, and Roisin watched, they all watched as Gerard dropped his arm and the pointer and laughed. ‘Darkness and light,’ he said, and now he laughed aloud. ‘It gets me every time.’ He paused. ‘Every time: you’d think I was an expert – but I only saw The Jewel for the first time this week!’

The audience tittered.

‘And there she is, we think,’ and again the pointer rose, and wavered, and pointed. ‘Emily Sandborne, and nobody knows how she captured this distemper painting, and managed to keep it alive, and unfading.’ A pause. ‘She took this particular secret to the grave.’

He had them: the crowd moved, exhaled audibly – and now there was, spontaneously, a round of applause; and Gerard flushed, and lowered the pointer, and nodded. He knew his mind: that was it. Like Maeve, he had his opinions. Roisin looked over the heads of the crowd at the sparks of light in the painting, and then she slipped away from her green silk walls, and out into the corridor, and away.

The Jewel by Neil Hegarty (published by Head of Zeus) is out now.