‘Nine hours,’ boasted my friend the curator about his trip to the Prado. Nine! Two hours is my upper limit in a gallery. After that I’m gasping for the tea room and gift shop. Knowing my lack of stamina, my own trip to the Prado was focused: just Velázquez and Goya. Then lunch. And a bit of Rubens, because that large room of lovely bottoms is so ‘Hello, sailor!’ it would be rude not to look.
It helps to have a mind’s gallery of Diego Velázquez portraits while reading Amy Sackville’s novel Painter to the King. Not essential, but definitely enriching. If you haven’t a Madrid mini-break booked, have a nose around the Prado collection online. Sadly, you can’t visit El Buon Retiro, Felipe IV’s pleasure palace outside the city, now mostly ruined and demolished. ‘Dust veils everything,’ writes Sackville, as workmen lay the foundations; ‘these buildings coming out of it like dreams in the desert.’ When the retreat is finished it is all ‘gleam and lustre’, but also ‘tawdry’. Here, Felipe (1606–1665) and his fawning court hunt, play, eat, prance about in their petticoats, giggle at their dwarfs and squander, squander, squander money meant for the army. Felipe makes Jay Gatsby look a mean, cheese-on-sticks sort of host. ‘This long and briefly passing sequinned decade’ is how Sackville describes Felipe’s party years.
Painter to the King is her third novel. The first, The Still Point, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; the second, Orkney, won a Somerset Maugham Award.
Madrid isn’t Orkney. The 17th-century city conjured up by Sackville is a place of sex, siestas and sanctimonious piety, a city quick to anger and riot. Sackville writes beautifully, imagining the court in painterly detail: its fashions, its stultifying formalities, its hierarchies and petty, poisonous rivalries. She has the art of weaving Velázquez’s works — the eggs spitting in oil, the Count-Duke of Olivares on horseback, the tiny princess Margarita in her impossible dress — through the developing relationship, even friendship, of Diego and Felipe. We share with Velázquez the first flashes of inspiration. A dwarf, resting his foot on a snoozing hound: good motif, that. Must remember it. And there they are, dog and dwarf, in ‘Las Meninas’.
P-p-p-poor Prince Charles (our future Charles I) turns up, stuttering, and the Habsburgs make jokes about his ‘boyfriend’ the Duke of Buckingham, who wears pompoms on his stockings. Rubens arrives — ‘the famous Fleming’— with his entourage and flunkeys to paint pink, naked ladies, ‘all abandon and inner thigh’. Rubens claps Velázquez on the back and stirs his ambition.
The blurb suggests this is a book for readers of Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. Yes, they are both historical novels about a young man of wits seeking his fortune. But while Golden Hill races over the rooftops with the reader puffing to keep up, Painter to the King is stately, like an infanta in a farthingale proceeding down a long Alcazar corridor. Sackville’s summoning of time and place is exquisitely done, but the effect is less moving pictures than stylish still lives.