Tag Archives: Dominc Smith

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.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of May paperbacks kicks of with Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival which tells the story of Julia Pastrana. Born in 1834, Julia is a heavily hirsute Mexican woman, eager to see the world and willing to pay the price even if that means allowing herself to be exhibited in a freak show. Her travels take her to Prague, Vienna and Saint Petersburg where she’s feted by royalty, taken to a glittering ball and welcomed as the guest of honour at grand dinner parties. Money, however, is always exchanged. Woven through Julia’s tale is that of Rose, who in 1983 finds a dilapidated wooden doll in a London skip. It’s an absorbing novel – the knowledge that Julia existed makes it particularly poignant – with some gorgeously descriptive passages but what didn’t work for me was the twentieth-century thread which was something of a distraction from Julia’s extraordinary story. Still well worth reading, but no match for Jamrach’s Menagerie, one of my Blasts From the Past.

Emma Cline’s debut The Girls is also loosely based in fact – the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son. One day in 1969, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals in a Californian park. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back at the dramatic events that shaped the course of her lonely life. Cline’s novel succeeds in engaging her readers’ sympathy steering well clear of the prurient. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me but that’s a small criticism. Cover image

Dominc Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos has a very appealing premise. It draws together a landscape painting by a woman admitted to a Dutch Guild as a master painter in 1631, the person who inherited it in the 1950s and a celebrated Australian art historian, about to curate an exhibition fifty years after forging the work, who finds herself faced with the arrival of both versions of it. ‘As the three threads intersect with increasing and exquisite suspense, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerises while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present’ says the publisher. Very much like the sound of this one.

Entirely different but also appealing, A. L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet sees a fifty-nine-year-old senior civil servant struggling with his conscience over his government’s shenanigans and on the brink of spilling the beans. Meanwhile, Meg Williams is a forty-five-year-old bankrupt accountant just about managing to keep sober. Set over twenty-four hours in 2014, it’s about ‘two decent, damaged people trying to make moral choices in an immoral world: ready to sacrifice what’s left of themselves for honesty, and for a chance at tenderness’ says the publisher. I have a very on-again off-again relationship with Kennedy’s writing but find state-of-the-nation novels well-nigh impossible to resist, even though the nation’s in a very different state these days.

Cover imageLast but very far from least, is Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning The Sellout, another coup for the excellent Oneworld. Billed as a ‘biting satire’, it’s about a young man who’s been the subject of his sociologist father’s controversial studies, under the impression that the resultant book will make the family’s fortune. After his father’s murder it becomes clear that there is no book. What’s more the small town of Dickens is no longer on the map, thanks to the embarrassing nature of his father’s work. The young man sets about righting what he sees as this wrong, taking outrageous measures that land him before the Supreme Court. ‘The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game’ promises the publisher and clearly the Man Booker judges agreed.

That’s it for May’s paperback preview. A click on the first two titles will take you to my review and to a detailed synopsis for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with the first part, it’s here while May hardbacks are here.