The art of self-deception

A review of The Optickal Illusion by Rachel Halliburton, a novel set in the art world of Georgian London

England is vulnerable. King George III is suffering from mental illness and has lost his American colonies, France is yet to recover from the Reign of Terror, Napoleon is beginning his campaign to conquer Europe, the French are siding with Irish rebels and there are spies in London.

The Enlightenment has only recently ended, yet people suspected of republican or radical sympathies are arrested without trial for sedition, publishers fear censorship or punishment, slavery continues and women and children are exploited.

At a time when artists are vying with each other for patronage and fearful King George III doesn’t have the sense or strength to continue supporting them, young Ann Jemima Provis and her father approach the president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Benjamin West, with a manuscript that may contain the secret to painting like the great master Titian. Despite their humble origins, the Provises claim to have inherited an important document, which they are willing to share—for a price. Are they ignorant bumpkins, frauds or honest heirs to an important discovery? What would the men of the Royal Academy be prepared to do to gain such knowledge?

Rachel Halliburton builds up an atmosphere of paranoia, betrayal, simmering violence and Schadenfreude. London is poised and waiting for invasion, revolution or regicide, but would settle for scandal. Mobs gather to salivate over public hangings. The artists of the Royal Academy would happily ruin their colleagues for the chance of higher commissions or prestige.

The author creates suspense and humour from the clash of ambition, ego, lust and thwarted talent. The real question of the novel is whether or not those who are assured of their own preeminence can see the truth when it is staring them in the face.

Halliburton has created a compelling story based on real events, but I would urge anyone reading this novel not to look up this art world mystery until you have come to the end. If you do, the novel is still enjoyable as the author has made good use of the gaps in the record to create intrigue, as well as a strong and intelligent heroine.

To suspend the denouement, a large cast of characters is introduced after the initial question—is the Provis’s document genuine?—is posed. Most of the characters are fleshed out, but some are there to represent a view or explain the back story. Georgian England feels authentic, as does its art world, and our senses are engaged. The structure of the book, however, could be tighter.

I also wish that the author and editor had had more time to reduce repetition (too often people have sallow skin or shadows under the eyes, and the phrase ‘chastised her bitterly’ appears twice on page 336). I suspect ‘moving forward’ is a verbal tic of the our century, not the eighteenth. These are minor quibbles in an entertaining novel that has whet my appetite for more art history and the Georgian period.

The Optickal Illusion made me indignant—for the right reasons—about women’s prospects then and now. What might a woman achieve, if only she were allowed, and how many great talents have we lost?

Rachel Halliburton has opened up the eighteenth-century art world to me and I am keen to see what she will write next.

© JD Ellevsen 2018

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