In 1845 a dullish bookseller from Reading ruined his life by falling in love with a painting. At the closing down sale of a nearby boys’ boarding school – nothing grand, the sort of job lot of iron bedsteads, fingered Latin grammars and cheap drugget carpet that you found everywhere – John Snare thought he saw something extraordinary. High on the wall, almost out of sight, was a grimy portrait of the doomed King Charles I, apparently in his salad princeling days. The brochure said, with a shrug, that the painting was a “supposed Van-dyke”.
This alone would have been thrilling, but Snare knew enough art history to believe that the picture might actually be the work of a greater master, Velázquez. He remembered that in 1623 the young Charles had travelled to the Spanish court to try to snag a rich infanta as a bride. The prince, as he still was, returned a single man but could have stayed in the Alcázar just about long enough for the resident court painter to take a likeness. Wiping a corner of the painting with a surreptitious spitty finger, Snare discovered what he believed was a bona fide masterpiece. Here was Charles as no one had seen him before, fresh and bloomy, rendered in Velázquez’s spectral greys, greens and silvers with sparkling mother of pearl eyes, so different from Van Dyck’s later renderings of him as a mournful spaniel.
Laura Cumming twists several genres around her supple fingers in order to tell the extraordinary story of how Snare fell under the spell of a painting and sacrificed everything – prosperity, reputation, a respectable death surrounded by loving family – so that he might live with it like a lover. Above all, Cumming, who is the Observer’s art critic, wants us to see why Velázquez is, in the words of her book’s cover blurb, “the greatest painter of all time”, a nonpareil presence for whom any sane person would give up their life.
Then there’s the detective story, which gusts the plot along at a cracking pace. Once Snare had bought his picture for £8 – about what you’d give for a middling horse – he found himself immediately defending his darling against two challenges. The first was that his newly acquired painting was simply a run-of-the-mill Van Dyck that he was trying to parlay into a profit. The second was that, if it really was a Velázquez, then a bookseller from Minster Street had no business owning it and so must have come by it illegally.
Snare’s attempt to establish the provenance of his painting involved pamphlet wars, a court trial and two kidnaps (of the picture, not himself), and most bathetically, a stint on New York’s Broadway as a janitor. Cumming retraces her hero’s steps, armed with the internet, aeroplane tickets and access to various museum experts. And if she doesn’t exactly solve the puzzle of how a portrait made in Spain in 1623 ended up in a country house auction in Berkshire, she manages to disprove Snare’s working hypothesis that Charles had spent a goodly stretch in the clutches of the second Earl of Fife before finding his way to a second-rate boarding school. What Cumming hasn’t been able to do, ironically, is solve the riddle of where the painting is today. It disappeared in 1898 and now lies who knows where, quite possibly waiting to be rediscovered all over again. No print or engraving is known to exist.
Even without this central piece of evidence, she is still able to conjure for us what it must have felt like for Snare, a man who normally dealt in sealing wax, string and cheap copies of Dickens, to find his world enchanted by genius. Using her own emotional responses to the full range of Velázquez’s work – although there isn’t much, he painted only 120 pictures in 40 years – Cumming pulls us so deeply into the painter’s world that it seems as if we can feel the breath of his subjects on our cheeks, and see the sheeny sweat on their brows. This is art as resurrection, which is why Snare could never bear to let his Charles go. On two occasions he turned down life‑changing sums of money for the portrait, preferring to keep it alongside him in his dingy lodgings.
It is when Cumming is writing about the master that her prose really flares. Particularly fine is her account of how Velázquez came to paint a series of portraits of the dwarves who worked at the court of Philip IV. Snarky rivals liked to argue that, rather than tackling grand historical or biblical scenes, Velázquez seemed to have an obsession with faces, and ugly, deformed faces at that. What they missed was that, far from treating portraiture as some kind of cheap parlour trick, he brought to it an exquisite sense of his subjects’ humanity, more moving than anything you might find in a blustering David and Goliath or even a mawkish Nativity. Thus he grants the court dwarves – so often lumped together as fools, freaks or even “vermin” – the kind of full subjectivity that he bestows on Philip IV or Pope Innocent X.
There’s Don Diego de Acedo, a learned scholar and keeper of the royal seal, who is shown as a professional man first and a small one second. His hands are buried beneath the monumental pages of his official book, yet his keen, searching expression suggests that he is entirely equal to his task. There is the dwarf maidservant in Velázquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, looking out with wary frankness, the only person in this self-absorbed scene to notice the viewer and realise that she is, in fact, a figure in a painting.
If Velázquez was never cruel in his portraiture, he could be candid. In the first painting of his boss, he shows the 18-year-old Philip as puffy and adenoidal, with blue veins pulsing unpleasantly beneath clammy skin. Later, as the king’s face slims, the long Habsburg jaw becomes increasingly obvious, made more ridiculous by being paired with a bounder’s moustache. By the end of his life Philip’s jowls are flopping about all over the place. Cumming suggests that this loser-king’s finest achievement may well have been his willingness to subject himself to an unflinching biography in paint, continuing to grant Velázquez the kind of access to his awkward body of which most court painters could only dream.
Having persuasively sustained the connection between Snare and Velázquez, Cumming constructs a narrative that plays on their startling contrasts. On the one hand she gives us a mid-Victorian landscape of country house auctions, crude over-painting, phlegm coloured Scottish skies, and trials that resemble something out of Gilbert and Sullivan in their cruel dottiness. On the other, she shows us Velázquez’s world of glossy courtiership, stately buildings, harsh, vertical sunlight, the rustle of silk and the gleam of pearls.
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