Hot on the heels of the highest price ever paid for a work of art – the £118m for a Picasso – comes a novel by the upcoming chair of the National Gallery trustees about skulduggery in the art world. Those smacking their lips for scandalous details about the lives of the rich and infamous will not be disappointed. Neither, however, will those in search of a charming romance about how a lost masterpiece by Watteau affects the hearts and lives of the rest of us.
Note: not "The Impossibility of Love", but "The Improbability". Hannah Rothschild's first novel is a meditation on both great art and human passion, and as such reads like a confection concocted by Anita Brookner and Judith Krantz. Her imagined painting of a fête galante by the greatest artist of the Rococo is as scholarly, passionate and enticing as her portrait of the fabulously wealthy, largely philistine and possibly criminal, bunch that pursues it is not.
We start with the "sale of the century" at a London auction house. A group of international ultra-high-net-worthers, ranging from a rapper called Mr M Power Dub-Box to the sophisticated Mrs Appledore, is gathered to do battle for the painting. Thankfully, Annie, a heartbroken young cook who originally bought it, with her meagre savings, from a junk shop, brings the novel closer to the territory AS Byatt explored in Possession. Her quest introduces us to Jesse, a guide at the Wallace Collection, who instantly falls for her. The dark secret of the painting's recent past in Nazi Germany gives the story sympathy, melancholy and momentum.
One of the author's more daring choices is to have the painting itself speak to us, somewhat in the manner of Hans Christian Andersen's conscious candles. Worldly-wise yet perilously frail, the painting tells us how it was "the receptacle, the vessel into which all the agony and ecstasy of first love was poured". As in her excellent biography of Nica, her rebellious great aunt who saved the jazz genius Thelonious Monk, Rothschild understands the dance between art and mammon. For the question of what a masterpiece is worth remains unquantifiable. Art has become the new religion, and although the author somehow believes punk rockers still walk the streets of London, she is uniquely placed to show us why.
Part of the novel's charm is that its characters, rich or poor, are all a mixture of frailties. Like a Rococo painting, this clever, funny, beguiling and wholly humane romance is a treat worthy of its subject.Reuse content