Book Review: Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

Painter to the King is the story of the artist Diego Velázquez and his life at the 17th century court of King Philip IV of Spain. It tells of a bored and incompetent king and his struggle to produce a living heir. And of a court which grows more splendid as the King becomes more languid, more of a puppet for his greedy and ambitious advisors.

Yet is it not a story in the conventional sense. The narrator takes the action, such as it is, from the paintings of Velázquez, studying the canvases for clues. She observes the court through the painter’s eyes, trying to imagine how it might have been. Everything is inferred, rather than stated.

It takes a while to get used to the style, but once you do, this is an evocative and mesmerising read. Like a painting, it is full of minute and intimate detail, all of which adds up to the big picture. We, the readers, are drawn into the canvas, invited to enter the artist’s world. It is as if the figures are moving, a dog opens its mouth as if to bark…

This is a multi-layered book, covering a particular period of history, the King and his court, and the life of Velázquez himself. But it is also about the process of painting, and of observing. The artist is criticised by his contemporaries for being a mere observer, who records what he sees, but never creates anything new. We start to realise that, whatever the skill of the painter, a picture is just a moment frozen in time. All senses but sight are absent: the past is ghostly, leaving only shadows behind. So much of what we know about history is speculation and guesswork. Much of it is lost, or can only be glimpsed obliquely.

As a reader, you can scan the meaning, or observe the detail. Or, as with a painting, you can zoom in and out. Painter to the King is a novel to challenge you, but also one to savour, to take pleasure in every image, detail and idea.

Painter to the King is published by Granta, 2018. ISBN 9781783783908

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