Art historians consider Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599- 1660) one of the most important painters of Spain’s so-called Golden Age, a period in which the arts and literature flourished. Amy Sackville’s fictional re-telling of the artist’s life at the court of King Philip IV of Spain until his death 38 years later clearly owes much to her own passion for his work and the historical era in which he lived. The amount of detailed research it must have taken to produce this novel is impressive indeed.
The story follows Velázquez, aged twenty three, as he arrives at the King’s court in Madrid from his native city of Seville. The Palace is a place where access to the King is subject to status and privilege. Keys to the multitude of doors leading to his inner sanctum are held only by the favourite few. Over the following decades Velázquez, as chief court artist, cements his reputation, already established in his place of birth, thus gaining increasing respect with the court’s staff as well as rights to attend the King’s private chambers.
King Philip IV is an insecure individual who questions his very existence and has difficulty adapting to adulthood and the growing responsibility which his birth-status has burdened him with. He seeks solace from his attendants and obligations in Velázquez’s studio, watching him work, even when he is not himself the model. The royal portraits and other paintings adorn every wall, nook and cranny of the Palace and being painted at each stage of his life and in every situation is a major preoccupation with the King’s advisers. It is a duty which makes him uncomfortable. He much prefers watching the Painter work on still-lifes or hunting scenes in which he does not feature.
Sackville’s writing, in her first two novels The Still Point (2010) and Orkney (2013), is lyrical and dreamlike. In Painter to the King the style is more grounded, even earthy. She catches the ambience of seventeenth century Madrid with its smells, noise and dirty streets so vividly that the reader practically feels he is right there in the throng of it all. The style also follows a trend which I have begun to notice emerge in recent novels. Long paragraphs, sometimes of a page or more, but made up of short sentences which run together, giving a sense of breathlessness or urgency to the text. Furthermore, there are no inverted commas at the beginning and end of dialogue which sometimes makes it difficult to ascertain what are purely descriptive paragraphs and which passages contain both narrative and dialogue. Besides the book under review, I am thinking particularly of Sally Rooney’s two novels Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018). I also found this format in parts of Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under (2018). Since these are all popular award-winners which have elicited excellent reviews, I appreciate that it is simply ‘a sign of the times’ in which everything, including literature, has a need to feel it’s being consumed at a fast pace in keeping with the rest of life in the twenty first century. It is a style of writing, however, which may not appeal to everyone. In spite of the ‘breathy’ way of telling the story of Painter to the King Sackville maintains the same overall mood throughout, even when she describes the tragedy of the King’s double-loss of both his wife and his beloved son and heir dying in the same year.
Lengthy descriptions of life at court and the plays and games put on for the King’s entertainment, particularly in the last third of the book, are apt to become a mite tedious, but these are more than compensated for in earlier sections by the author’s skilful descriptions of the Painter’s works-in-progress as they are being created, lending the reader a feeling of being led right inside the space portrayed on the canvas.
The most vivid characterisation in Amy Sackville’s novel is that of King Philip IV of Spain himself. His often child-like behaviour, his foibles and insecurities are related throughout the book. The qualities and traits of the other main characters, the King’s Chief Secretary and the Count-Duke, are mentioned occasionally as though in passing, but do little to allow a full mental picture of them to be formed.
This is ultimately a novel which explores the notion of hierarchy and legacy and how, outside the bedchamber, in the seventeenth century this was achieved through art-creation and its preservation.
Any Cop?: An example of well-researched historical fiction told in a way that really draws the reader in. A worthwhile read, particularly for anyone interested in seventeenth-life at the Spanish court.