Laura Cumming, The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Veláquez (2017)

11DCFAA8-9739-41CB-8C40-CB74C289B9F0I was browsing the freebie table at Worldcon when I found this and picked it up. I confess that I haven’t much knowledge of Diego Veláquez, a seventeenth century Spanish painter, beyond Las Meninas as inspiration for Picasso and Pope Innocent X as inspiration for Bacon. It seemed to be a book about a single painting — and then I noticed the author was Laura Cumming, art critic for The Observer and author of On Chapel Sands, a biography of her mother’s hidden past.

I was familiar with the story that Charles I had tried to travel to Spain in disguise, in search of a wife — and that this had gone wrong. What I didn’t know was that he had been painted by Veláquez whilst at the court of Philip.

Or was he?

John Snare, a printer and bookseller in Reading in the early nineteenth century, had stumbled across this painting coming up at an auction, where the assumption was that the portrait was a Van Dyck, who we know became part of Charles’s Court. Veláquez, whilst the greater artist, was little known in Britain, but Snare was convinced and spent £8 buying it.

The problem Snare faced, as an amateur, was proving what he had bought. Had Charles brought it back to England and somehow avoided it being part of the records of the Royal Collection and the inventory of the Commonwealth when the collection was flogged? Or had it stayed in Spain, only to be “liberated” by British troops during the nineteenth century war in Spain? How had it come to be in the possession of an Earl of Fife and, if so, which one? How could he establish provenance and thus value?

When he showed it in Reading and then London, most experts felt it was a Van Dyck, despite the appearance of Charles being all wrong. Or perhaps it was by a another Dutch artist. Or another Spaniard. Who was Snare to stand against the British art connoisseurs of his age?

Two disasters hit Snare. First, the painting is seized to cover the debts of the person whose room he hired in London. And then, most seriously, when he shows the painting in Edinburgh, representatives of the Earl of Fife insist he’s stolen their painting. A trial follows. In fact a number of trials.

And then Snare disappears.

As does the painting.

Today we could have X-rayed the canvas and engaged in spectroscopy and other methods. Bendor Grosvenor or Fiona Bruce was on the case. Cumming can only operate at one or two removes — searching the archive for Snare and collectors, looking at other paintings by the artist, retracing Snare’s steps. She can use the t’interwebs.

I decided to avoid spoilers and I didn’t Google. I didn’t know if this painting is now in the National or a Scottish castle. I took her at her word that there is no etching or copy of the image. I wouldn’t know how the story ended. I didn’t even check what the book’s cover was.

Cumming tells a gripping story, of class warfare, of the history of art attribution and I learned much about Veláquez as she has to reconstruct his life. There are a few moments of repetition, but perhaps those are necessary. Just when you think the trail has gone cold, she finds Snare.

This paperback has an afterword — things came to light after the book was published, and I won’t spoil things by saying what. It is clearly a story she has to abandon rather than conclude.

It’s a shame that the pictures reproduced in the book in black and white are too small, and the colour plates are a little murky. But once you read this, you should go back and reread and search for the images.

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