The Painter’s Friend by Howard Cunnell: ‘The Source of Art is the Life of a People’

Cover image for The Painter's Friend by Howard Cunnell As regular readers will know, I can’t resist a novel with an art theme which is why I put up my hand for a copy of Howard Cunnell’s The Painter’s Friend. That and the memory of the praise heaped upon his memoir, Fathers and Sons, which explored his own relationship with his father as his daughter transitioned into his son. The quote at the top of this review comes from an inscription by Walter Crane on a floor panel, uncovered by an artist whose installation Cunnell visited, which sowed the seed of the themes he explores in this gripping, beautifully written novel.

Food or rent, rent of food. These were our choices  

Terry Godden is an artist who’s known more hard times than many and whose work exchanges hands for exorbitant prices, bought by collectors as interested in gaming the market for money as the art itself, sometimes more so. Terry’s painting of two ex-miners preparing to settle a score long after one of them had broken the ruinous strike back in the ’80s caught the eye of a dealer who promised Terry a show which never materialised leaving him with a dangerous anger. Homeless again, Terry rents a boat moored on one of London’s islands. His neighbour, a well turned-out elderly man, takes no notice of him which suits Terry fine. As spring wears on, despite his intentions, Terry finds himself drawn into the lives of the islanders, each with a story, from the woman fleeing her abusive partner who calls herself Stella to Gene, relentlessly questioned by the police about the disappearance of his beloved son. When the islanders receive notice of a rent rise, a ploy by its rich property developer owner to get them out, Terry devises a clever solution, turning the island into an outside gallery so that the attention of the world will turn their way.

Kaplan’s house across the river seemed to exist in starbursts, blazing from every window in the house and from the marquee that was set up on the big lawn.

Cunnell’s passion for the themes of art, entitlement and division that underpin his novel are evident from the author’s note that completes his book, explaining the inspiration behind it. Told through Terry’s voice, it’s a gripping piece of storytelling with a page-turning pace written in a painterly yet spare, clipped style, atmospheric in its descriptions of the island and the islanders. The stark contrast between the privileged rich and those who a rent rise of £250 per quarter will render homeless is made vividly apparent. There’s a rich irony towards the end of the novel when Terry is shown his own painting of the miners, unemployed for decades since the strike, now adorning the walls of this wealthy man, the son of a Thatcherite. I found it both engrossing and deeply moving. The ending is shocking, not easy to read, but it rang all too true.

Picador: London 9781529030921 288 pages Hardback

24 thoughts on “The Painter’s Friend by Howard Cunnell: ‘The Source of Art is the Life of a People’”

  1. This sounds brilliant. (I’ve been having trouble logging into WordPress to leave comments on quite a few blogs, including yours, so I’ve filled in all details today and hope that works!)

  2. I was trying to work out why Cunnell’s name sounded familiar — I have a copy of his memoir on the shelf but haven’t read it yet. (Next Father’s Day, perhaps?) I love an art theme, too.

      1. Offshore also came to my mind as I was reading your review, for similar reasons – the nature of the setting and the diversity of (idiosyncratic?) characters, each with their own story. It sounds intriguing…

  3. Cunnell is new to me, but this does sound good – I love an art theme too and you’ve left us dangling, I need to know how it ends!

    1. It’s irresistible, isn’t it? The ending’s a tough one but this is a spoiler free zone so that’s all I’m saying apart from a warning if you’re a dog lover: don’t get too attached!

  4. What a striking cover. I’m reading a Canadian writer’s reimagining of Berthe Morisot just now, Dede Crane’s recent novel One Madder Woman. And on the heels of another Canadian writer’s reimagining of a Canadian artist (Maud Lewis), Carol Bruneau’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are. Even though it’s not as much of a pet theme for me (as, say, writing and publishing, or marriage, or identity and coming-of-age) I do really enjoy stories that brush against the art world.

    1. It is, isn’t it? All those are new to me but I’ll look them up. Definitely a popular theme with readers if the traffic on my Five Books I’ve Read About Art post is anything to go by.

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