REVIEW: Painter to the King, Amy Sackville

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

This is a portrait of Diego Velazquez, from his arrival at the court of King Philip IV of Spain, to his death 38 years and scores of paintings later. It is a portrait of a relationship that is not quite a friendship, between an artist and his subject. It is a portrait of a ruler, always on duty, and increasingly burdened by a life of public expectation and repeated private grief. And it is a portrait of a court collapsing under the weight of its own excess. Unfolding through series of masterly set-pieces and glancing sketches, this is a novel of brilliance, imagination and sheer style -- about what is shown and what is seen, about art and life.

When I read Painter to the King early this summer, I thought that it would surely be a contender for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Now, a few months later, I worry that it has gone under the radar and that great swaths of people are missing out on its powerful, panoramic and highly emotional scope.
It definitely does not possess a straight-forward narrative, but Painter to the King is rather, formed of a series of vignettes told with both broad and delicate brush strokes. Sackville draws the painter, the King and the Count-Duke in such a well-rounded, precise way, that it feels in some way that she managed to capture the real human beings within the historical facts. Or, if not them exactly, the impression of themselves that they left behind and which has imprinted along the ages.
I found Painter to the King to be an extremely visual and sensory experience (much like Diego Velazquez’s artwork), and it was only made more so by the inclusion of Sackville’s own personal adventures within the burnt-out remnants of the Spanish court. Her thoughts on their individual characters and rumination on their possible reactions to the legacies that they have left behind, provide an unexpected twist on the usual fictional biography structure and help to ground the novel in its lasting impression and connection to the present.
Too often we can feel disconnected from the past but, in Painter to the King, Sackville managed to create a flawless narrative that broke down every single wall.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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