Using Faces To Make Sense Of The Past | 1/3

I’m a writer, but I have a visual imagination. In this mini series, I’m going to explain how I’ve used faces as a way to “picture” and make sense of large numbers of people, in things I’m writing.

This is an example from genealogy, in which I wrestle with how to distinguish between people with similar names, on a family tree (not my own) that stretches back 500 years.

I did this for myself, but it turned out to be useful to others working on that family tree.


Genealogical Faces

Reading through a list of names going back to the 1400s (!), I struggled to remember which century the individuals belonged to, or where they lived – let alone which stories applied to them.

I kept having to work it out all over again by looking through a messy heap of documents.

Instinctively, I knew it would help to have a picture of the individual faces – even if the picture didn’t look anything like the real person.

I could have simply copied online portraits from the relevant period, and written names from the family tree across them.

But that didn’t feel right, because there would be no family resemblance – not unless I took absolutely ages looking for portraits of people across all those centuries who happened to look somewhat alike.

I decided to draw them.

I would start with the most recent – because I do have photos of those. Working backwards, I would try to connect the generations with a few distinguishing features. And I would dress everybody in clothes appropriate to their period in history – as copied from contemporary portraits.

I drew a grid, with space for 16 generations, on a sheet of A3 paper. Then I sketched a face into each frame. For the sake of consistency, I put the husband on the left of the wife in each generation.

So far, so good. Recently, I decided to take the idea even further by adding colour to the pictures, to remind myself roughly where the people lived: over time, the family moved from hot countries to cold countries, and back again.

As it happens, the added colour didn’t make a vast difference to my understanding of where they lived, but it did help me to hold the faces distinctly in my memory.

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