Christopher Gray talks to a Woodstock writer who has won prestigious literary awards

The writer Ross King has a special gift for seizing on artistic wonders of the world and telling us how they came to be.

His first non-fiction success, Brunelleschi’s Dome, described architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s painstaking construction over 25 years of what remains the highest and widest masonry dome ever built, that of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

Next he told, in the same learned and lucid prose, of Michelangelo’s labour of love painting the Sistine Chapel. The artist gave four years to the work, amid the political and religious intrigues of early 16th-century Rome.

Most recently, following further books on topics as wide-ranging as French Impressionism, the political theories of Machiavelli and the Group of Seven landscape artists from his native Canada, Ross returned to Italy once more to consider the consummate genius of Leonardo da Vinci.

His account of da Vinci’s creation of his iconic religious mural, Leonardo and the Last Supper, which appeared two years ago, won the prestigious Governor-General’s Literary Award, the third time Canada has honoured him in this way.

Ross is at the tip of Europe, to discuss the book at the second Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival, when The Oxford Times successfully requests an interview.

Beneath tangerine trees in a sunny garden behind the Garrison Library, he is happy to talk of his life, as his wife Melanie King, also an historian, busies herself at a festival event inside.

Long-time residents of Woodstock, they are both involved with the literary festivals at Blenheim and Oxford, of which that at Gibraltar is proving so succesful a development.

The bald prarie of rural Canada was the scene of Ross’s childhood, where temperatures drop to minus 42C in the worst winters and a car breakdown in the days before mobile phones could prove fatal.

He was born in 1962 in Estevan, Saskatchewan, moving very soon after to the nearby village of Portal which straddles the border with the American state of North Dakota.

His father was a civil servant working in customs and immigration, while his grandfather, a farmer, had emigrated early in the century from Henley-on-Thames, where the Kings had their origins.

Ross is pleased to have returned to his Oxfordshire roots.

So, as it turns out, has his older brother Bryan, a doctor attached to Oxford’s Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine.

Below Ross are five further siblings, all following careers of academic or professional distinction. Sport had been an abiding interest of Ross’s early life, with ice hockey, soccer and baseball his favourites.

For a time he saw his future there.

“But at 15, my sporting prowess was beginning to tail off. Size and shape came to be important and I realised I was going to pursue an academic rather than an ice hockey career.”

High school was in Estevan, a city of 9,000 people, known for oil and being “the sunshine capital of Canada”.

Ross spent the daily 25-mile bus journey each way with his nose in a book. But these were not, he confesses, works requiring much mental effort, rather the page-turner novels of Jeffrey Archer and Ken Follett.

Years later, in a newspaper travel piece on ‘my favourite city’, Follett recommended Brunelleschi’s Dome for travellers to Florence.

Ross wrote to tell him of his childhood enthusiasm and received a stock reply, “showing that someone else answers his letters”.

Ross worked sufficiently hard academically to achieve the coveted role as Valedictorian, delivering the closing address at the school’s graduation ceremony.

“I just managed to pip my great rival. She is now an eminent violinist.”

Ross’s principal cultural interest, besides literature, was art, which was later to become comprehensively reflected in his writing.

At the University of Regina a BA in English literature was followed by study for a master of arts, involving a thesis on T.S. Eliot, who had been a childhood enthusiasm.

“The subject was The Waste Land. I bit off much more than I could chew but I had a lot of fun chewing. The thesis was not a particularly useful contribution to scholarship but I enjoyed doing it.”

Next came his PhD from York University in Toronto where a disseration on 18th-century English literature taught useful lessons for a writer on what not to do.

“You learn to use research, to analyse evidence. It took me a little while later to unlearn the academic style of writing.”

Immersed in the events of 18th-century republicanism, he learned a lot about Machiavelli that would prove useful in his book on him.

Ross moved to England in 1992 to take up a two-year fellowship at University College, London. Arriving a few days after the currency crash of Black Wednesday, he showed dilatoriness over his changing of Canadian dollars which happily proved profitable.

Besides significant travels to museums and galleries in Europe, he became a frequent visitor to Oxford, with a reader’s ticket at the Bodleian Library.

He recently found that as someone without an academic position, he could find his ticket withdrawn, “but I am sure I can find someone to vouch for me”.

Ross made some effort to secure university posts following his fellowship before concluding that writing was the way to earn his living.

“If you had asked me what I wanted to do when I was 15 and reading Ken Follett, I would have said that I wanted to be a best-selling novelist. Faced with the prospect of looming unemployment, I began to think that way again.”

His first two books were novels, steered into print by publisher Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, now Ross’s agent.

Domino was the story of a castrato singer in 18th-century London. Ex-Libris sees a 17th-century London bookseller’s perilous search for a missing manuscript.

Ross had already switched to non-fiction, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, when he met wife-to-be Melanie at a Writers in Oxford gathering at the home of a friend in Islip. They married in 2003. Ross’s first marriage, begun in Canada, ended in divorce in the late 1990s.

Among the most significant events in his professional life was the invitation in 2010 to curate an exhibition by Canada’s influential Group of Seven landscape artists at the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art in Kleinberg, Ontario.

“It was a wonderful experience and unique for me.”

His book Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven arose from this.

The next volume in the Ross King oeuvre is to be a lavishly illustrated book on the history of Florentine art from 1280, with Giotto and his contemporaries, to 1737 and the end of Medici rule in the city.

This will be in the shops just in time for Christmas — next year.