2018: The Year in Books – ‘Painter to the King’ by Amy Sackville

(In the final part of our 2018: The Year in Books series, we look at my absolute favourite book of last year. (and my god, it was actually published last year (who could believe it)) It’s the one, the only – the incomparable ‘Painter to the King’)

The Bestest Best Book of 2018 Award

Amy Sackville – Painter to the King

Painter to the King

Painter to the King follows the life of Diego Velázquez – one of Spain’s most important artists, and official painter to King Philip IV.  As a young man, Velázquez  is summoned to the King’s court for his prodigious talent. The King too is young, restless – at turns consumed by optimistic cheer and crushed by the stultifying routine of royalty.

We follow them both. In later years, so laden with titles and offices, we see a Velázquez far too busy to paint. And the King quieter, subdued by age and tragedy and long-endured routine. We see the warp and weft of a life – or rather, of two.

It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

The King, The Man:

Painter to the King is as much the story of the king as it is the painter. And it paints (aha) a portrait (just shoot me now) of royal life that makes you pity royalty – the crushing expectations, the tutors, the timetabled days without a moment to oneself. Immense wealth, immense privilege – but happy? No, very likely not happy.

Children born, the requirements of producing an heir heavy upon you once again, and foreign wars and shows of piety and so much power but only in the abstract as others run your life for you. The lassitude not just of being endlessly managed, but of being so rarefied, so distanced from normal men and women that you might as well be on different planes of existence:

‘…only the most necessary staff attend the King’s lonely, largely silent repast. He would like a sip of cinnamon water, holds out a long hand for it. It is fetched from the dresser. It is uncovered. The physician approves. It is covered and presented; the cellarman kneels, flanked by footmen; the King drinks. The process reversed itself, the cup received re-covered restored to the dresser. And if, a moment later, the King thinks he might like to take another sip – – the glass is fetched again and uncovered and approved and covered and presented and so on and so on. Or sometimes perhaps he thinks better of it, prefers to go thirsty for a few minutes more.’

The arc of the king’s life is fascinating, sombre, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I, but Velázquez also feels the weight of expectations upon him. As he rises in importance he receives money and titles and privilege – yet more keys open yet more locked doors in the King’s court. But his responsibilities multiply. He must manage the King’s collection. He must meet and talk and sometimes bargain. He must do a thousand different things, and painting is just one of them. In his youth he was consumed by passion for his work – now his passion consumed – starved of light and oxygen – by all the things he must do.

Painter, Preserver:

Amy Sackville writes like no one else I’ve ever read. She hone in on the intense detail of small things and small, glossed-over moments with the precision of a Renaissance painter (which is, obviously, appropriate to the subject matter).

Just take this randomly-selected passage from near the beginning of the book:

‘The cool curve in the hand, the rough striation of the clay and the smooth glaze, the fine cracks snagging lightly each ridge of the fingertip; he attends to all of this, plasticity, rigidity, fragility, damage and flaw, detail, surface and shape.’ 

Not only does her writing feel like poring over the brushstrokes of a masterpiece in some dimly-lit European gallery, but it feels, at times, like the most direct communication of a person’s thoughts, feelings, fears, and obsessions I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

Not of Velázquez, but Sackville herself. Throughout the book we keep returning to a nameless narrator – a person in the modern day travelling, presumably, to see the paintings, and piece together the life of Diego Velázquez. Not the biography and the dates, but the man himself. It’s impossible, at least for me, to see this as anything other than a stand-in for the author, and her thoughts, her feelings – her fears and obsessions. Perhaps it’s not that at all, and I’m reading too much into it. But like I said – it’s impossible for me not to.

Sackville’s writing is intense and obsessive – employing stream of consciousness, and an especially liberal creative licence with punctuation to build something incredibly human, incredibly personal: a reaching out – driven by an unspeakably personal sense of connection – to a painter three hundred and fifty years dead. Knowing all the while that, ultimately, you’re chasing thin air. Talking to that person directly, knowing they are long gone, but hoping that through art, somehow, something can be preserved:

‘I want to know if – – you know, for example, when you split an almond lengthways in the teeth, and find the perfect smoothness of the nut’s inside surface on the tongue– I want to ask – – I want to ask you, do you love that, as I do? The smoothness of it and the sweetly bitter oily tang? No one will remember this about me when I die.’

Painter to the King is, like most great novels, about a lot of things. It’s about the painting. It’s about work and passion, and being pulled ever so slowly away from those things. It’s about piety and sin and regret – the willingness of the spirit, the weakness of the flesh. But, at it’s heart, I think it’s a novel about how art can touch us. How we can see so much of ourselves in the paintings, the films, the writing of another, and how that can make us want to reach out to the painter, the director, the author. How it can make us feel that there’s something personal – something somehow two-way there. That the painter – the man – is reaching back to us, through the centuries.

Are they really? No. Does it matter? Not for a second.

– – –

That’s all for this series. I’d like to keep writing about books in the future – though maybe at a slightly more relaxed pace. I’m currently mulling over a piece on Endo Shusaku (one of my favourite writers), and his short novel The Sea and Poison. That might take a while though, as I work on other projects (some of them to be announced on this blog very soon).

In the meantime, thanks for sticking with me through these ten posts. They’ve been fun, if sometimes very difficult, to write. If any of the novels I’ve talked about in this series seem interesting to you (especially Painter to the King, which, as you can tell, I can’t recommend enough), please do give them a go.

And if you want to follow me on Twitter (for some reason), you can find me here.

See you next time!
Nick

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