Novels about art and artistry are plentiful; many are very good. But in Painter to the King Sackville has written not only by far the finest novel of its kind that I have ever read, but one of the finest historical novels of recent years. For her skill and daring, her assured grasp of both subject and form, and her masterly chiaroscuro of human failure and endeavour, she is as distinct among her peers as Velázquez was among his.
Sackville’s novel follows Diego Velazquez and his patron Philip IV through several decades of the king’s reign. Through the painter’s eyes, we are shown the splendours and the miseries of Philip’s life and court and we watch the unfolding of the artist’s genius for depicting the physical reality of that world and its inhabitants. Sackville’s prose summons up the Spanish past in rich and appropriately visual detail, although its occasional obliqueness, even opacity, works to obstruct the flow of her narrative.