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.