A rich, dar­ing and darkly lyri­cal por­trait of Velásquez

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - EL­IZ­A­BETH WASSELL

Amy Sackville’s darkly lyri­cal new novel, Painter to the King, has been com­pared to the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion of Hi­lary Man­tel and AS By­att. Yet for this reader, it re­calls not Wolf Hall or Pos­ses­sion but John Fowles’s The French Lieu­tenant’s Woman. Pub­lished in 1969, Fowles’s novel fea­tures a know­ing nar­ra­tor who speaks to his present-day readers above the heads of his 19th-cen­tury char­ac­ters. As in that book, the nar­ra­tor of Painter to the King lives firmly in the present but has em­barked on a kind of pil­grim­age into the past, in this case 17th-cen­tury Spain, in or­der to ex­plore the life and times of that great baroque painter Diego Velásquez.

How­ever, Sackville is more dar­ing even than Fowles. In this novel about paint­ing – which, per­force, ad­dresses the mat­ter of bor­ders, frames, the lim­i­nal, that which is seen and can­not be seen – the nar­ra­tor moves flu­idly, flu­ently, from the present into the richly imag­ined past, of­ten in the course of a sen­tence or mere phrase. Vis­it­ing Madrid, our nar­ra­tor finds, at last, the “yel­low plaque that bears the painter’s name”, but it “is fixed to a storey that wouldn’t have ex­isted then” in a for­lorn street “close to the tourist tat and tapas . . .”

Feel­ing gauche, she takes a photo of the house, the plaque, and silently im­plores the painter, “Are you at home? I came call­ing for you . . .” Then, im­me­di­ately, we are in 17th-cen­tury Madrid, fol­low­ing Velásquez as “He works, rests, vis­its friends, thinks he might be­come ac­cus­tomed to the dry air . . .” Such pow­er­ful evo­ca­tions ap­pear through­out this novel, as do of­ten funny al­ter­ations of dic­tion. Stately, lush prose is in­ter­spersed with de­scrip­tions of a choco­late-drink­ing char­ac­ter “wired from the co­coa” or the golden-haired In­fanta made fa­mous by Velásquez ex­claim­ing “Yuck”.


Yet mainly Sackville uses lan­guage that is at once metic­u­lous and rhap­sodic to de­pict how the painter de­picts his sub­ject (King Philip IV, whose sub­ject he is), in paint. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the painter and his king is the crux of this novel. Philip is melancholy by na­ture – today, we would prob­a­bly call him de­pressed – but Velásquez must por­tray him as the Planet King, en­com­pass­ing the globe with his ra­di­ance and power (royal por­traitists were, per­haps, the first pub­lic re­la­tions ex­perts; just think of Henry VIII and Hol­bein). Only Velásquez is too for­mi­da­ble a ge­nius not to paint the man be­neath the Planet King. In por­trait af­ter royal por­trait, Velásquez shows the man, Philip, as he ages, ab­sorbs much sor­row and grows ex­hausted within his cara­pace of priv­i­lege.

Sackville triumphs at de­scrib­ing how baroque art was made. By the time Velázquez was painter to the king, gone were the days of Bot­ti­celli and his clean, limpid lines. Paint­ing, in­flu­enced by hu­man­ism, had be­come “painterly” rather than “lin­ear”, a mat­ter of how the eye makes shapes from light and shadow. Hence, the sec­re­tary “takes the painter’s can­dle and steps closer, to take a bet­ter look. Some of the sil­ver threads come loose. A flicker of light upon the eye turns out to be noth­ing more than a white paint daub. He stares at it with his own un­lit eyes and then steps back un­til the King’s eye is an eye again.”

This is a fine novel, but there are prob­lems for the reader in a book that is so in­tro­spec­tive and yet so aloof and ironic. Of course, we are read­ing of a painter, but one can grow weary of the ex­hor­ta­tions to “See”, to “Ob­serve”. We are told, “So, ob­serve: the court as he ob­serves it . . .” Or, “Ob­serve this young man: a hand about there on the hip . . .” In an­other sec­tion, we are pre­sented with scenes: “Here is a path­way into the dark gar­dens . . .” We are also in­vited by the nar­ra­tor to par­tic­i­pate in her spec­u­la­tions, her haz­ard­ing of guesses. “Let’s say” and “per­haps” abound: “Let’s say mid-af­ter­noon . . .” or “Let’s say early morn­ing – the bright haze of an early sum­mer morn­ing . . .” Or “So, per­haps, we might bring some light in . . .” The nar­ra­tor’s ex­pe­ri­ences in the present day are im­me­di­ate and clearly pre­sented, but Velásquez’s world is bur­dened by the con­di­tional, the el­lip­ti­cal, with all those “per­hapses” and “let’s says”. And it comes across as strangely ab­stract, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that this is a novel about an em­i­nently representational painter.

Siri Hustvedt, her­self a splen­did nov­el­ist, has re­flected that, “. . . all great books are writ­ten from a po­si­tion of ur­gency and . . . must have emo­tional power”. She be­lieves also that one should write “from the in­side out, not the out­side in” and laments that many nov­el­ists today com­pose with “a wil­ful moder­nity”. My one cavil con­cern­ing Painter to the King is that it is a bit too cool, a bit too arch in places in its use of word play, and there­fore want­ing in pas­sion. Even so, this is a dense, rich book – as the paint­ings of Velásquez are dense and rich – and well worth read­ing.

Por­trait of Philip IV of Spain, king of Spain, by Diego Velásquez (1599-1660)

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