I adored Amy Sackville’s first two novels, Orkney and The Still Point. When I spotted a copy of her newest work in my local library, therefore, I picked it up and read its blurb with interest. Painter to the King is very different in its approach, given that it marks Sackville’s first foray into historical fiction, but as she is such an innovative writer, I fully expected to love it too.
Painter to the King gives a fictional account of artist Diego Velázquez, who, as a twenty three-year-old, was summoned to the court of King Philip IV of Spain. He arrived in Madrid to become the official ‘painter to the King’, a position which he would hold until his death.
Velázquez’s job gave him ‘an unparalleled view of palace life’, and it is this which Sackville has set out to explore. She examines his story through his own eyes, and in consequence, ‘… we see an intimate relationship that is not quite a friendship, between a king and his subject, between an artist and his subject.’ Sackville aims to expose ‘what is shown and what is seen, about art and death and life’, and dips into the spaces between.
When we first meet Velázquez, in 1622, he has ridden to Madrid from Seville: ‘He had a stipend for the journey and some pride, he arrives in style: he has paid for a horse. Just one attendant on a mule with the baggage, who has no features in the dark beyond the torchlight.’ He meets the King quite soon afterwards; at this point, Philip IV is not even twenty, seen as ‘a man of solid flesh, and the greatest monarch in the world.’ He has been the King of Spain for two years, much of that time spent mourning his late father. He would go on to rule Spain during the Thirty Years War.
The omniscient narrator of the novel speaks from a position of hindsight. When describing the King, for instance, the following is said: ‘… Now he is young and golden, and his people love him, and although he is melancholy by temperament he hasn’t yet known many of the many sadnesses that will later come to weigh him down and pull at the corners of his eyes and cast the court into muttering silence, chafing in the draughts; all this is to come and if anyone can see it they won’t speak, won’t see it, or won’t be listened to; only a fool would tell a truth like that one, that it’s all already ending -‘. The narrator also writes about experiences they have had viewing Velázquez’s paintings whilst on a trip to Madrid in the modern world; I found this a thoughtful inclusion.
I loved Sackville’s descriptions, and the importance of minutiae in her writing. Her prose is beautiful and rich, suffused with detail. I admired the way in which she tries to infiltrate the visions of the artist at the novel’s core. She writes: ‘The painter has faith in solid objects, arresting their motion through the world and preserving forever their thisness, the quiddity of matter and moisture and shine; transparency, opacity; the exterior that things present to the world, and how much of the world can be seen through them, distorted, distilled… he attends to all of this, plasticity, rigidity, fragility, damage and flaw, detail, surface and shape.’
Painter to the King is highly evocative throughout, and Sackville captures precise scenery, sights, and smells with such a deft hand. The writing here is often sensuous, particularly when Velázquez’s work is described, or when evoking the entire process of creating a new painting. When she describes El Corto, the area around the palace in which civilians live and work, she writes: ‘Everything here exists to serve the court, to bake its bread and cure its meat and weave and stretch its linens and sew its sleeves and tunics and undergarments; an ersatz city at the axis of a cross drawn through the country, and built upon a high dry plain across which hot winds in summer and ice winds in winter wander and gallop like madness.’
Sackville’s prose is relatively experimental, and there are some sections of stream-of-consciousness here. I really liked the fresh approach which she gives to the historical novel, a genre which tends to follow a similar writing style. Sackville’s rich vocabulary lends itself well to this work, and allows her to blend art and history in such a satisfying way. Painter to the King reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s playful historical novel Orlando at times. She sweeps through Philip’s reign, and Velázquez’s career with such authority.
Painter to the King was first published in 2018, but I only found out about it when browsing in my local library in the summer of 2020; even as someone who looks out for Sackville’s work, I do not find it reviewed often – or at all – and this is a great shame. I admired this interesting and unconventional work of historical fiction, but must admit that I did not find it as compelling or as breathtaking as her contemporary fiction. However, Sackville is a highly underrated writer, and one which I urge every reader to seek out. Whichever of her novels you choose to begin with, they are guaranteed to intrigue and surprise.