Halliburton’s intriguing but patchy debut, based on an episode from the London art world in the 1790s, concerns the mysterious provenance of a Renaissance manuscript and of the young lady peddling it. Ann Jemima possesses a document outlining a technique supposedly employed by Titian, a “knowledge of the science of colour that many thought had been lost to history.” She offers to sell the manuscript to Benjamin West, an expatriate American painter. He’s trying to maintain his tenuous hold on the presidency of the Royal Academy, “a crocodile pit full of opportunists” whose members are always seeking an edge over their fellow artists. Ann is a talented painter in her own right and uses her prowess to demonstrate the technique, first to West and then, after a disagreement over remuneration, to his Royal Academy rivals. Halliburton adroitly satirizes the political machinations of Georgian London and explores issues of authenticity and originality as they relate to artistic creation. The novel teems with historical characters, and occasionally the narrative meanders as a result. There is a tendency to have characters rather stiffly convey political and cultural information, as if they were docents rather than living, breathing figures. Nonetheless, the novel’s expansive, colorful canvas contains many delights, particularly for those interested in art history and theory. (May)
The research is impeccable. The reader becomes totally immersed in the society and culture of the time: clothes, speech, idioms, descriptions of place all serve to help the reader imagine the scenes. Key themes are the nature of art, the question of identity, and the role of women, specifically how female artists have been painted out of history, denied recognition despite talent. Of course, this is a theme which is very much still resonant today. . . . A novel tosavor . . . [for] fanswho enjoyed literary novels such as Eleanor Catton’sThe Luminariesand Sarah Perry’sThe Essex Serpent.”
This tale of an art con, based on a true event, reads like an eighteenth-century version ofThe Sting, growing in tension as it accelerates to its conclusion, adeptly using nonlinear narrative structure. Immersive, entertaining, and recommended.”
Packed with intrigue, The Optickal Illusion is a riveting effort.”
Eloquent and captivating.
Written with a detail and often a lyricism that makes me go back and reread for the pleasure of it. I am drawn into the history and vibrancy of color as never before. I see more intensely, and that is a great gift to have been given.
A remarkable true story of vanity and delusion, which Halliburton turns into a gripping and only partly fictional whodunnit . . . brings the artists and their art to colorful life and brushes in streaks of feminism, via Mary
Wollstonecraft, as well as dark shadows of the French Revolution.
Utterly absorbing . . . Halliburton builds up the layers of deception,
ambition, and scandal into a shimmering, fully textured portrait of Georgian
London with all its gloss, dross, glamour, and corruption.
In the Georgian art world, where one's livelihood is based on reputation, technique is a jealously guarded secret, and rivalries are intense. For Anglo-American artist Benjamin West, second president of the still-young Royal Academy, and victim of his own waning genius, the promise of a long-lost formula for Titian's famous coloring proves irresistible. That this formula is offered by a talented painter who is also a clever and charming young lady tantalizes Ben into sacrificing good sense and integrity, embroiling him and the academy in a scandal that threatens their undoing. At the center, the mysterious Jemima Provis and her father play a dangerous game among shifting loyalties and limitless ambitions. A mystery within only adds to the intrigue as a bold and determined woman struggles to forge her identity in a world where women figure only in the background of events. VERDICT Halliburton's debut is a vibrant portrait of an age of political and artistic revolution as well as a gripping story, slowed only at the outset by the introduction of an enormous cast of characters who later lend color to the narrative. For fans of 18th-century historical fiction.—Cynthia Johnson, formerly with Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, MA