The Artist's Widow

The Artist's Widow

by Shena MacKay

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The Artist's Widow is the story of the good, the bad and the untalented. It begins on a hot August evening in Mayfair, at a private viewing of the "Last Paintings" of John Crane. Among those present are Crane's widow, Lyris, also a painter; her friend Clovis Ingram, a middle-aged bookseller; Zoe, a beautiful young television filmmaker; and Lyris's great-nephew Nathan…  See more details below


The Artist's Widow is the story of the good, the bad and the untalented. It begins on a hot August evening in Mayfair, at a private viewing of the "Last Paintings" of John Crane. Among those present are Crane's widow, Lyris, also a painter; her friend Clovis Ingram, a middle-aged bookseller; Zoe, a beautiful young television filmmaker; and Lyris's great-nephew Nathan Pursey, a boorish young conceptual artist on the make. None of them realizes that the evening will change their lives forever. The Artist's Widow is a novel about the nature of the artistic impulse - about friendship, betrayal, courage and cowardice. It is also a London novel, exploring the mental and physical geography of the city in all its variety.

Editorial Reviews

Ann Prichard
Mackay's book is most entertaining, a hybrid mix of Jane Austen, minus the scope, and Evelyn Waugh, minus the mania. It makes for fine, midsummer night readings.
US Today
Paul Baumann
No one who shed a tear over the cruelly publicized life, loves and death of Diana, Princess of Wales, should open it....When [Mackay] casts her gimlet eye on the characters in her latest novel, she aims both to amuse and to unnerve. And she largely succeeds....Here is a world of recognizable modern solipsists who, given countless opportunities to make the small, necessary human gesture, unfailingly resort to the counterfeit.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Few writers are as adept as Mackay (The Orchard on Fire ) in summing up temperament, appearance and motivation in the space of one spare, stunning sentence. Here her gimlet eye focuses on a dozen London characters whose relationship to Lyris Crane, the eponymous artist's widow, brings them into juxtaposition. In addition to mourning the recent death of her husband, John, Lyris fears the loss of her own creativity as a painter. She suffers through a posthumous show of John's last works in an acid-etched scene in which establishment figures of the British art world and untalented and opportunistic wannabes mingle and try to impress each other. Lyris's great-nephew Nathan Pursley, a louche, ignorant and nervy fellow who styles himself a conceptual artist, is part of a circle of self-indulgent, obnoxious, vulgar young artists whom Mackay skewers with rapier wit. Other characters come from a range of Britain's social classes. Although most of them exhibit a credible mix of foibles, pretensions and misplaced love, one or two verge on caricature. Besides Lyris, the only likable characters are a working-class couple whose kindness to Lyris reflects true gentility of spirit, and a bookstore owner adrift in indecision. The plot affords a panoramic view of the lives of these representative Londoners during the stifling August that preceded the death of Princess Di. As her characters experience the insecurities of youth, the crises of the middle years and the regrets of old age, Mackay explores the issues of artistic creativity, moral values and friendship. She writes in language as quick and lethal as a snake's tongue; the best scene is a dinner party where everybody behaves badly and the dialogue is hilarious. No startling life passages occur here, just a not-so-gentle sliding from one stage to another. The sadness at the narrative's core is beautifully controlled; the wit is buoyant. (July)
Richard Eder
...[S]he locates truths that even she does not know....[This is] writing that can be sheer magic in short bursts and comically unexpected in longer ones....The abiding the portrait of Lyris..rallying against sorrow, solitude, frailty, the drifts of confusion that intermittently cloud a sharp vision and...fear...
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
The opening of a retrospective showing of an artist's paintings at a London gallery results in a refreshingly sharp study of hypocrisy and hustling. John Crane wasn't an especially celebrated painter while alive, but his death sets in motion a series of attempts to cash in on what he's left behind. For the studiedly shabby and ambitious Nathan Pursey, a self-styled conceptual artist, a resurgence of interest in Crane might mean a chance to leverage himself into a gallery show of his own. For his ruthless family, it might mean a chance to move in on their aging relative, Crane's widow Lyris, and take control of the couple's London house, as well as their art collection. For Zoe, a young, breezily amoral would-be film producer, it means a chance to talk Lyris, herself an accomplished painter, into becoming the subject of a documentary about women artists who have been unfairly eclipsed by the reputations of their mates; it's a work that, she is convinced, will make her reputation. Various other equally hectic and self-obsessed characters are drawn into these machinations. Meanwhile, Lyris, struggling to take back control of her life, receives help from an unlikely source: Jacki, an ex-girlfriend of Nathan's, shows up on her doorstep, looking for a place to stay—and more pressingly for an identity. She has, it turns out, been passing herself off as the child of black immigrants, when in fact she is a member of a white working-class family. Under Lyris's tutelage, she begins to come into her own—and gives Lyris the ally she needs to confound those striving to use her. Mackay (An Advent Calendar, 1997, etc.) has, of all the younger British novelists, the most pronouncedappetite for satire. The portrait of modern poseurs on the art scene, and of old-fashioned greed, is concise and droll. And she demonstrates a quite original sense of pacing: the scenes here are short, clipped, and more suggestive than descriptive, making for a swift but engaging pace. A very funny, and ultimately moving, portrait of an aging artist reclaiming her identity.

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Product Details

ISIS Large Print Books
Publication date:
Isis Hardcover Series
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
6.45(w) x 9.55(h) x 0.79(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Every artist leaves behind a shadowy retrospective exhibition of the pictures that were never painted. Although perhaps only one of the guests at the private view sensed their presence, the spaces between the canvases on the wails were swarming with the ghosts of ideas and thwarted images. It was the sort of party that John and Lyris Crane hated. Louis Viner Fine Art was a Mayfair gallery that stretched through a long white rectangle which amplified the noise, with a bottleneck in the doorway where people checking their coats and reaching for the champagne that greeted them met smokers fighting their way out to stand in the drizzle. The hot August weather had broken that afternoon.

    Lyris was there on her own. In one hand she held a glass with a purple sediment and in the other the bunch of flowers which someone had brought her from his garden. Louis had draped his arm across her shoulders in a proprietorial yet patronizing way, trapping her and reminding her of a snake that a man had slung round her neck once in Tangiers. As he spoke he puffed gusts of wine into her face. Now and then she glimpsed a waitress circulating with a bottle but it was always empty before it reached their corner.

    Lyris glanced at her watch, and saw that the flowers were scattering tiny black dots, seeds or insects, over the front of her pale dress. John had the perfect excuse for being late tonight for he was unavoidably and indefinitely detained at Golders Green. This was the Private View of John Crane, 1918-1996: The Last Paintings. Lyris felt a pang of envy for John, among the flowers andberries of the crematorium gardens. But the trees would be gathering darkness now, the reeds and bulrushes whispering, a chilly dew rising to meet the rain. Time to come indoors.

A young man with a round orange-stubbled head and a fringe of orange moustache clapped Louis on the shoulder. His eyelids, with a bristle of pale lashes, were tender and his eyes dull green and hard.

    "Louis, my man! Who do you have to screw to get a drink in this place? You're going to have to sack your caterers, you know."

    "Lyris, have you met Nathan Pursey?" Louis asked, removing his arm at last.

    "Nathan's my great nephew. By marriage. Hello Nathan, how nice of you to come. Nathan's one of the Purley Purseys," she added in explanation, or apology.

    Nathan had the pointed Pursey nose, which pulled up the lip like a rodent's to expose the front teeth, with a depression above one nostril where a stud had been removed. His teeth were strong and white, whereas in some of the clan they were as yellow as a beaver's. He had met Louis at a show at the Serpentine Gallery and had made it his business to cultivate him.

    "Cheers, great auntie by marriage. Well, I see they've all come out of the woodwork tonight."

    Nathan was wearing a white shirt clotted with pigments over chefs trousers, and a burned-out roll-up was stuck behind his ear. Three champagne glasses dangled by their stems between his fingers. He raked his eyes round the gallery, taking in Savile Row tailoring and label jeans, a tuxedo with a glittering AIDS emblem, peacock blue silk, all the lustre and glitter, the stained velvet and mothy grandeur of ancient haute bohème, and the bare shoulders of girls. Lyris could see that he wanted it all for himself. She remembered him as a little boy at a family party loading his paper plate with cocktail sausages, chocolate fingers, gherkins, cake and crisps until it collapsed, and with white powder on his nose at her husband's funeral.

    "You're living in North London now, aren't you, Nathan?" she asked.

    "Yes, Why?"

    "I thought so."

    His customary smell of cannabis, mildew and Marlboros had acquired top notes of hummus and stale white wine. It was true that it was a surprisingly impressive turnout. She hoped that there was a rash of scarlet dots on the paintings that nobody could see.

    "It's funny," said Nathan. "I was just going to lig my way in, as you do, when it struck me that Uncle John would definitely have wanted me to be here tonight. Guess my invite must have got lost in the post. Well, better go and mingle I suppose. Work the room as they say. By the way, Lyris, did you catch that feature on me and my mates in the Sunday Times? What a laugh. We were all totally bladdered."

    Lyris shook her head.

    "Get Mum to send you a copy. Apparently she bought up the newsagent's. You saw it, didn't you, Louis? Yep, me and the lads are really putting Tufnell Park on the map."

    "Isn't it still on the Northern Line now, then? It always used to be," said Lyris.

    Nathan backed away to look for somebody to impress. Louis watched him dump his empty glasses on a passing tray, snatch a bottle of red wine and push his way into a circle of writers and painters who didn't pause in their conversation. Nathan took a glug from the bottle and picked at a clot on the front of his shirt. It was not, as Lyris supposed, paint. He was furious that he had not been invited and scowled round the room, thinking he recognized various people from the funeral, some with babies strapped to their chests. Nathan's interest in babies was limited to dismembered plastic dolls. No doubt they'd all be troughing at the Ivy later while he was plonking home on the Northern Line. The old bat had really dissed him this time. Nathan belched and, catching sight of a gorgeous bird wasting herself on some wizened scrote, began to move in on her.

    "He'll go far, that nephew of yours," Louis remarked. "One of the movers and shakers sans doute. You must be thrilled. He was a protégé of John's, wasn't he? I've promised to make a studio visit soon."

    "That boy couldn't draw his way out of a paper bag. Never could and never will. He was the only child I've ever known who couldn't do magic painting books. Yes, I'm sure Nathan will go far."

    A pond with green scum on its surface came into her mind. And yet she was fond of the boy because she had known him as a baby, a Mabel Lucie Attwell elf. She sighed for him; so young, and yet so passé, and with an incipient beer belly. Against his better judgment John had pulled strings to get Nathan into Chelsea and now here was Louis, John's dealer, apparently eager to exhibit Nathan's self-indulgently assembled detritus. Nathan had treated Chelsea like an extension of school, mucking about and bunking off lectures. They had given him his degree though. Nathan and his pals had even colonized the Colony Room, unaware that their custom had destroyed any tattered remnants of its glamor.

    "Louis dear, do you see that couple jammed into the corner?" she said.

    "Who let them in?"

    "Could you go and be nice to them please? They're very good friends and neighbors. I tried to introduce them as soon as they arrived. Their portraits are hanging over there."

    "Ah. Of course they are."

    "John was very fond of them. Before you ask them what they do, Tony has a washing machine repair business and Anne's a dinner lady at our local school."

    Louis made a derisively submissive little bow and left her as Clovis Ingram came up and kissed her hand. He was a tall olive-skinned man in his late forties, wearing a brown shirt with a turquoise tie, who always reminded Lyris of a Burmese cat, and not only because she once had a chocolate Burmese called Clovis. Lyris had known his father who had had a framemaker's business in Maida Vale, which Clovis on inheriting the premises had converted to Criterion Books.

Clovis had arrived early and spent some time looking at the paintings. There were those who dismissed them as the daubs of a lost old man sploshing away like a child in a waterproof smock at nursery school, others praised the liberation of the loose brushstrokes and swirls. The last canvases burned with the brilliant chemical derangement of autumn when the slow fuses smouldering up the stalks of senescent leaves burst into mineral fire.

    "Lyris, you're looking wonderful. Like a drawing in chalks—of white and mauve irises. Can I get you a drink?"

    "Thank you. No thank you. But I do feel rather chalky. I don't like standing for very long and these ridiculous shoes are killing me. I keep hoping that John will arrive to rescue me so that we can go home and have a quiet supper in front of the telly."

    Clovis looked at her long, narrow feet without speaking. To be pushing eighty and to have come to a party in blue suede shoes was deserving of more admiration than he could express. The toes were almond-shaped, pale blue fuzzy buds. Eventually he said, "I'll find you a chair. There must be one downstairs."

    "Please don't. I'd be trapped like a dowager with some kindly ingénue feeling duty-bound to crouch at my knee and then be unable to get up from embarrassment."

    "I'm leaving in a minute. Do you want to come with me? We could have a bite to eat, or I'll put you in a taxi—Who is that amazing girl with your appalling nephew? She looks like Nefertiti. Is she the girlfriend?"

    "I've no idea. The last time I saw him was at John's funeral and he was with a different girl. A Rastafarian, I think. It's all a bit of a blur. You must have met her. I understood that they were what's called an item. No, Clovis, thank you. Louis is taking me to supper and it would be rather impolite to leave. On the other hand, he's just been extremely rude about two very dear friends ... perhaps I will."

    But Clovis was no longer listening, he had just seen a gauzy mass of agate-colored hair; Isobel his former wife raised her glass to him in an ironic toast. He stepped back from the people converging on Lyris with a sheaf of bronze lilies in copper beech leaves. It seemed to Lyris that the room had become much noisier, like a cave filled with the roar of the sea. She felt dizzy and shook her head to clear it, smiling at Clovis who was leaving without her, and tried to concentrate on the voices that were swimming around her. She must pull herself together for John's sake. Put on a good show. It was no use. She couldn't make out what anybody was saying, and she knew that she would have to stand there like a deaf white cat, purring lest she should offend.

Clovis might have shared Lyris's brief sea fantasy; one of his private names for Isobel when they were still married had been The Wounded Squid because she was so clinging and so easily hurt into squirting her purple sentimental ink over everything. The map of the world was stained with her compassion. Of course he had found it charming in her once. Izzie had a gift for making you feel you had betrayed her on occasions when you hadn't; her neck was permanently bowed by an invisible tray of flags for some cause of which you were too crass to be aware. Clovis and Izzie had a daughter, Miranda, who was fifteen, and who was on holiday in France.

    From the corner of his eye he saw a tentacle shoot out and engulf a canapé from a salver which had eluded him. As he shouldered his way through, Clovis passed Nefertiti looking bored in a white shift and heaps of gold and turquoise jewelery. Nathan had captured a venerable painter by the tassels of his white silk scarf.

    "Jacob, my man! Just the bloke I'm looking for! I need to pick your brains for an installation I'm doing. You know that Kristallnacht thingy in Berlin where the Nazis smashed all the glass in the shop windows?"

    While Clovis waited to collect his coat he heard the man in front of him say to his wife,

    "If I'd had to listen to one more of those condescending prats telling me how they'd been ripped off by their washing machine repair men ..."

    "I still think we should have said goodbye to Lyris."

    "No chance in that crush. Anyway, you can see her tomorrow.

    Clovis watched them help each other into their raincoats and then negotiate the knots of smokers blocking the doorway. Outside, the woman put up her umbrella and put it down again and the man lit a cigarette.

    "Tony, do you think we were supposed to have given that girl a tip, the one that gave us our coats? Only she looked so snooty ..."

    "Don't worry about it, we won't be seeing her again."

    "Excuse, me," Clovis said, recognizing them, "I think we met at John's funeral. I'd have known you from your portraits of course. Look good, don't they?"

    Behind them came the crash of a glass that somebody would try to blame somebody else for breaking, the mouths talked on and in the lavatory hot soapy water splashed on to the bronze lilies which a solicitous assistant had placed in the hand basin.

Lyris, home at last, ran a sinkful of water for her battered flowers and kicked off her shoes. The pale blue was streaked with black marks and the front of the left shoe bore the imprint of a man's heavy sole. She would never wear them again, just as she imagined she would not see Louis again. She had spent the taxi ride home in a state of disbelief at the humiliations that had been heaped on her and angry with herself for accepting them. It was because she was grateful to Louis for arranging the show. He had taken over the gallery from his mother who had been John's dealer for forty years and had never made much money from or for him.

    It transpired that Louis had not booked a restaurant. "Has Nathan left?" he had asked, looking disappointed. As Lyris hobbled along keeping pace with him and the bunch of people he had accrued, she tried to tell herself that she was having an anxiety dream from which she would soon wake. They ended up in a Thai restaurant where the service was so slow that several bottles of wine had been drunk before the food came. Green chili seared her tongue and she sipped mineral water miserably to cool her mouth and surreptitiously wash out the burning seed trapped at the top of a tooth. A long tooth. Nathan had depressed her deeply and her flowers, so kindly intended and such a blasted nuisance, were bundled under the table where some lost their heads. There had been no suggestion that she was the guest of honor or that she should not contribute to the inevitably disputed bill for food she had not eaten and wine she had not drunk.

    Eventually, they were out on the pavement again. When a taxi approached, Louis leaped into the road. As Lyris grabbed the door handle and climbed in she saw a look of surprise on Louis's face which suggested that he had hailed it for himself. All in all, if she counted the shoes, the evening had cost her the best part of a hundred pounds.

She went into the studio. An unfinished canvas stood on the easel. She put on a record, Ella singing "This Time The Dream's On Me," unscrewed the cap of a tube of paint, squeezed out a bead of ultramarine and took a brush from a jar.

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