Book Review: The Optickal Illusion by Rachel Halliburton

The Optickal IllusionAbout the Book

It is 1797 and in Georgian London, nothing is certain anymore: the future of the monarchy is in question, the city is aflame with conspiracies, and the French could invade any day. Amidst this feverish atmosphere, the American painter Benjamin West is visited by a dubious duo comprised of a blundering father and vibrant daughter, the Provises, who claim they have a secret that has obsessed painters for centuries: the Venetian techniques of master painter Titian.

West was once the most celebrated painter in London, but he hasn’t produced anything of note in years, so against his better judgment he agrees to let the intriguing Ann Jemima Provis visit his studio and demonstrate the techniques from the document. What unravels reveals more than West has ever understood—about himself, the treachery of the art world, and the seductive promise of greatness. Rich in period detail of a meticulously crafted Georgian society, The Optickal Illusion demonstrates the lengths women must go to make their mark on a society that seeks to underplay their abilities.

Format: Hardcover (384 pp.)           Publisher: Duckworth Overlook
Published: 8th February 2018          Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The author has taken a real life scandal that enveloped the art world of London in the 1790s and fashioned it into an intriguing story of artistic rivalry, deception and debate about the position of women in society.

Much of the novel focuses on the attempts of Thomas Provis and his daughter, Ann Jemima, to sell a manuscript purporting to reveal the secret of the artist Titian’s famed use of colour. The Provis’s believe themselves adept in their own art form: negotiation. Indeed, Provis has passed on to Ann Jemima all he knows about interpreting other’s agenda and manipulating this knowledge to advantage. The ‘art of the deal’, you could say. As Ann Jemima reminds Thomas, “You have told me often enough that you can only make a great deal if you understand the desires of the person to whom you are selling.” However, it turns out they have underestimated the duplicity of others and how secrets from their past may provide an opening for those who would thwart them or manipulate them for their own purposes.

As Rachel Halliburton explains in her Historical Note, nothing is known of the real life Ann Jemima, but the author creates a plausible picture of a young woman, a gifted artist in her own right, constrained by the social rules of the time from receiving the recognition her talent deserves. In fact, there are many who decry the whole notion of the education of women. “On most women – and indeed on certain men – education is as wasted as an opium enema on a dog.” Ann Jemima’s frustration at being prevented from pursuing what she loves – and what she excels at – is palpable. She recalls the art lessons she received as a young girl as being ‘like the breath of life in a suffocating existence.’

As a counterpoint to this, there is a walk-on part for Mary Wollstonecraft, the renowned champion of women’s equality. Following Ann Jemima’s impressive demonstration of the method to members of the Royal Academy,  Mary perceptively observes that they are willing to believe in the authenticity of the manuscript because to do otherwise would credit Ann Jemima with superior artistic talent. As Mary says, “You mean that it is more acceptable that she has discovered something extraordinary, rather than that she is something extraordinary?”

I really enjoyed The Optickal Illusion and its evocation of a particular milieu of London society.  The philosophical debates and political turbulence of the period provide an additional interesting backdrop to the artistic shenanigans.  I confess it did need my full concentration to follow the chronology of the story given the frequent changes back and forth in time.

I received an advanced reading copy courtesy of publishers, Duckworth Overlook, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Intriguing, well-researched, detailed

Try something similar…Crimson & Bone by Marina Fiorato (click here to read my review)

Rachel HalliburtonAbout the Author

Rachel Halliburton graduated in 1993 in English and Classics from Cambridge.  As a journalist for the past twenty years, and the former Deputy Editor of Time Out, she has interviewed notable people including President Gorbachev, Yoko Ono and Henry Kissinger for publications such as The Times, Financial Times, New Statesman, Spectator, Evening Standard and Independent.

She lives in London.

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