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late 18th Century
Now and then I have the pleasure of picking up a book that expands my mind. The Optickal Illusion is one such book, obliging me to spend quite a few hours re-acquainting myself with Titian’s paintings, with the work of Rubens and others of the great masters. Not that Titian plays an active role—but his artistic legacy lies like a shimmering mist over the entire story.
Ms Halliburton must have spent countless hours researching her novel—not only due to all the artistic references or the impressive cast of historical people that so effortlessly dance to the tune of her pipe, but also because everything from clothes to food to interiors in the last few years of the 18th century are so vividly depicted. Her beautiful prose even manages to make a work of art out of one of the best descriptions of a hang-over I have ever read.
Central to the story is Ann Jemima Provis, a teen-aged girl who is an impressively talented artist. She is also a young woman who has, for various reasons, lost faith in the world and who is determined never to be dependent on anyone but herself. Ann Jemima is on a mission to achieve financial independence and to her aid she has her father, Thomas Provis, and a manuscript which purports to reveal the Venetian Secret, a must-read for all those who want to know how Titian blended his colours and to copy his technique. (And yes, dear reader: do take the time to pore over some of Titian’s work. Stare at the lustre, the complex hues of skin and fabric, and you will understand why every artist since has wanted to paint like him—at least when it comes to colour.)
Who better to sell a manuscript of such value to than to an artist? And not any old artist. No, Ann Jemima decides to offer the manuscript to Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy of Art. I am rather impressed by how Ms Halliburton depicts Benjamin West, albeit that I am less than enamoured of the resulting character. Mr West is, IMO, rather full of himself and excels at the art of always finding excuses for his behaviour. But he is also an ageing man, fully aware of how cut-throat the competition on the artistic scene is and prepared to do what it takes to keep the young bloods snapping at his heels at bay.
A collection of other artists play important parts in the story, most of them depicted as exceedingly ambitious. Some are downright repulsive, others are just…sad. In common they all have that they are all very realistically presented human beings—if somewhat flawed. Fortunately, there are some heroes to this story: in Ms Halliburton’s depiction, one of them is painter John Opie who represents decency and level-headedness. He is also the only one of the painters who witness Ann Jemima’s demonstrations of “the method” who actually believes the end result presented by Ann Jemima is due to her talent. The other painters have problems believing a woman could ever paint as Ann Jemima does without having some sort of help, ergo their willingness to believe in the great Venetian Secret.
The story is based on real events, albeit that Ms Halliburton has filled in existing gaps with her own imagination. And having said this, I will speak no more of the plot—this is a novel that is best read without knowing just what will happen next.
Ms Halliburton is a skilled writer. She alternates between present and past tense, where past tense is strictly used for reminiscences while what is happening in the here and now is in present tense. It is difficult to shift tenses and not lose your way. Ms Halliburton does not set a foot wrong and what could have been cumbersome to read flows easily – even to this reader who is no fan of books written in present tense. I have already mentioned the excellent descriptive prose, the well-developed characters. I did, however, experience quite some irritation at the constant head-hopping—an author as gifted as Ms Halliburton should handle her POVs better. All in all, though, this vivid, sparkling read proved quite addictive – a bit like the absinthe Mr Provis tastes with such caution.
© Anna Belfrage
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