The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: Art and fakery

Cover image I’m not sure how I managed to miss Dominic Smith’s novel last year, although the hardback edition’s jacket is somewhat off-putting. In his author’s note Smith tells his readers that the eponymous Sara is loosely based on one of the first women to be admitted to St Luke’s Guild in the 17th-century Netherlands, explaining that he wanted to explore the life of female artists whose work is so often unsung. The result is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000.

‘At the Edge of a Wood’ is Sara de Vos’ only known extant painting. It’s been owned by the de Groot family for centuries but never exhibited. In 1957, while Marty and Rachel host a charity fundraiser, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the original. It takes Marty some time to realise what’s happened and when he does his investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student stalled in her research who has become an expert conservator. Posing as someone else, Marty engages Ellie as an advisor, helping him to put together a collection. He can’t help but admire her passion for art and soon their relationship takes a turn which may be revenge or the beginning of something else. Decades later, Ellie has become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career about to be celebrated in an exhibition which will have ‘At the Edge of a Wood’ as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner has decided to bring the painting from New York to Sydney himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. At the peak of her career, Ellie has been brought face-to face with her past. The story of the painting and its creator is woven through Ellie and Marty’s narratives.

Juggling three narrative strands, each of which inhabits very different periods, is a tricky structure to pull off but Smith manages it with sure-footed deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted, the descriptions of the 17th-century Netherlands particularly evocative and appropriately painterly. There’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel as we wonder how Ellie will resolve the dilemma her youthful indiscretion presents decades later. Beautiful writing, expert storytelling and erudition lightly worn combine to make Smith’s novel that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos  was a particularly timely read for me given the exhibition running at the Holburne Museum in my home town this year. It’s about the Bruegels whose peasant scenes are instantly familiar to anyone with the slightest interest in the art of that period. Pieter the Elder died when both his sons – Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder – were children suggesting that his mother-in-law, Mayken Verlhust, known for her miniatures and watercolours, had been their teacher rather than their father. The exhibition celebrates ‘The Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ from the Holburne’s collection which was previously thought to be a copy but has now been expertly verified as the work of Pieter the Younger. Flemish painting combined with unsung female influence – albeit a century earlier – you can see why Smith’s novel seemed so apt for me.

28 thoughts on “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: Art and fakery

  1. Annabel (gaskella)

    I’ve heard good things about this novel – I have a copy waiting on my review pile (which is too big at the mo). I’m sure I’ll enjoy it – I love art crime novels in general.

    Reply
  2. Rebecca Foster

    I very much enjoyed this one too. (It’s the first Kindle book I ever spent money on!) With the 17th-c. element it’s in the same vein as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, but I thought this outshone both of those.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Yes, I’d agree with that. I wasn’t so keen on the Chevalier but enjoyed the Burton very much – this one’s pacier and the three timelines work very well together.

      Reply
  3. Kath

    It’s funny what you say about the hardback cover. I was drawn to it & bought it in hardback! I’ve yet to read it though but your review has bumped it up the TBR.

    Reply
  4. Lisa Hill

    I think I know this Bruegel exhibition. I think it’s probably the same one that I saw in Lier when I was in Belgium in 2015. We were told that the major Bruegel gallery at Antwerp had been closed for renovations for ages and would be closed for ages more so they were lending their paintings to regional galleries in the meantime. How nice that this exhibition has made it to Bath! You can see some of the photos (that we were allowed to take on my travel blog) https://hillfamilysoutherndivision.wordpress.com/category/europe-2015/belgium/lier/

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Funnily enough I was in Antwerp earlier this year and the museum is still being renovated. I think the one at the Holburne – which is called Breugel: Defining a Dynasty – was triggered by the restoration and recent attribution of Wedding Dance in the Open Air to Pieter the Younger. It’s part of the museum’s collection and they have a Breugel expert on the staff who presumably helped to verify the work. I love your photographs of Lier cathedral – I’ve never been but I think it’s going to find its way onto my travel list now.

      Reply
  5. kimbofo

    I read this book last year as part of my Reading Australia project and I loved it so much it made my Top 10 at year’s end. Pleased to see you enjoyed it too.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks, Kim. The perfect summer read for those who want something pacey but intelligent for their holiday, I’d say. I see he has quite a backlist, too. Have you read anything else by him?

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      1. kimbofo

        No, they’ve not been available in UK before so nice to see Atlantic reissuing them now. I do have a very beat up edition of The Mercury Visions which I plan on reading soon.

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  6. bookbii

    Art and literature, the ultimate pairing. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that used a work of art as its core that wasn’t compelling and brilliant. Why is that, I wonder? Will you be going to the exhibition? I am the only one of my family who enjoys the art gallery, not that the familial disinterest ever stops me from going. Great review, as always, Susan 🙂

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. I went to see it a couple of months ago. I think it’s into its last days now. Last year I went to the Georgia O’Keefe exhibition at the Tate alone and wondered why I didn’t do it more often – no fretting that the people you’re with might not being enjoying themselves and lots of time for quiet contemplation of the work providing you manage to choose the right time slot, of course.

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  7. litlove

    This is one I absolutely must read. I’m into art world novels at the moment, and several have been quite disappointing. This, however, sounds like a real treat. Wonderful review, Susan!

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  8. BookerTalk

    Ive had this on my wish list since last year – your review is just making me itch to get it even more but I am trying really really hard not to succumb to urges like this until I clear a bit of space from the shelves. The fact you described it as better than Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, is intriguing. I enjoyed it but I also saw numerous comments to the effect that Burton didn’t really evoke sixteenth century Amsterdam that convincingly (I disagree) …..

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I’m a fan of The Miniaturist – and quite happy with Burton’s portrayals of Amsterdam – but, yes, I’d say this one’s better. Hope you won’t have to wait too long to get at it, Karen.

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  9. Lectito

    I hadn’t seen the hardback edition. My mother-in-law lent me the trade paperback at Christmas (the cover is much prettier). I loved the book too. Really excited to read Smith’s new book.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It’s great, isn’t it. A little bit of everything for a page-turning read and informative with it. I’m hoping that the new book will also be published here in the UK.

      Reply

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