The Very Picture of You

The Very Picture of You

by Isabel Wolff


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The Very Picture of You by Isabel Wolff

Where the eye sees the brushstroke, the heart sees the truth.
At thirty-five, Gabriella “Ella” Graham is a successful portrait artist in London. She captures the essential truth in each of her subjects’ faces—a tilt of the chin, a glint in the eye—and immortalizes it on canvas. But closer to home, Ella finds the truth more elusive. Her father abandoned the family when she was five, and her mother has remained silent on the subject ever since. Ella’s sister, Chloe, is engaged to Nate, an American working in London, but Ella suspects that he may not be so committed. Then, at Chloe’s behest, Ella agrees to paint Nate’s portrait.
From session to session, Ella begins to see Nate in a different light, which gives rise to conflicted feelings. In fact, through the various people she paints—including an elderly client reflecting on her life and a woman dreading the prospect of turning forty—Ella realizes that there is so much more to a person’s life than what is seen on the surface. And as her portraits of Nate and the others progress, they begin to reveal less about their subjects than about the artist herself.
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553386639
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/29/2012
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 551,341
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Isabel Wolff was born in Warwickshire, England, and attended Cambridge University. She is the author of eight bestselling novels, which have been published in twenty-nine languages. She lives in London with her family.

Read an Excerpt


"Sorry about this," the radio reporter, Clare, said to me early this evening as she fiddled with her small tape recorder. She tucked a hank of Titian red hair behind one ear. "I just need to check that

the machine's recorded everything . . . "there seems to be a gremlin . . . "

"Don't worry . . . " I stole an anxious glance at the clock. I'd need to leave soon.

"I really appreciate your time," Clare added as she lifted out the tiny cassette with perfectly manicured fingers. I try not to glance at my stained ones. "But with radio you need to record quite alot."

"Of course." How old was she? I'd been unsure, as she was very made up. Thirty-five I now decided-my age. "I'm glad to be included," I added as she slotted the tape back in and snapped the machine shut.

"Well, I'd already heard of you, and then I read that piece about you in The Times last month . . . " I felt my stomach clench. "And I thought you'd be perfect for my programme-if I can just get this damn thing to work . . . " Through the makeup I could see Clare's cheeks flush as she stabbed at the buttons. And when did you first realise that you were going to be a painter? "Phew . . . " She clapped her hand to her chest. "It's still there." I knew I wanted to be a painter from eight or nine . . . She smiled. "I was worried that I'd erased it." I simply drew and painted all the time . . . Now, as she pressed fast forward, my voice became a Minnie Mouse squeak then slowed again to normal. Painting's always been, in a way, my . . . solace. "Great," she said as I scratched a blob of dried Prussian blue off my paint-stiffened apron. "We can go on." She glanced at her watch. "Can you spare another twenty minutes?"

My heart sank. She'd already been here for an hour and a half-most of which had been spent in idle chatter or in fussing with her tape recorder. But being in a Radio 4 documentary might lead to another commission, so I quelled my frustration. "That's fine."

She picked up her microphone then glanced around the studio. "This must be a nice place to work."

"It is . . . That's why I bought the house, because of this big attic. Plus the light's perfect-it faces northeast."

"And you have a glorious view!" Clare laughed. Through the two large dormer windows loomed the massive rust-coloured rotunda of Fulham's Imperial Gas Works. "Actually I like industrial architecture," she added hastily, as if worried that she might have offended me.

"So do I-I think gas tanks have a kind of grandeur; and on the other side I've got the old Lots Road Power Station. So, no, it's not exactly green and pleasant but I like the area and there are lots of artists and designers around here, so I feel at home."

"It's a bit of a no-man's-land, though," Clare observed. "You have to come all the way down the King's Road to get here."

"True . . . but Fulham Broadway's not far. In any case, I usually cycle everywhere."

"That's brave of you. Anyway . . . " Sheriff led through her sheaf of notes on the low glass table. "Where were we?" I moved the pot of hyacinths aside to give her more room. "We'd started with your background," she said. "The Saturdays you spent asa teenager in the National Gallery copying old masters, the foundation course you did at the Slade; we'd talked about the painters you most admire-Rembrandt, Velázquez and Lucian Freud . . .? I adore Lucian Freud." She gave a little shudder of appreciation. "So lovely and . . . fleshy."

"Very fleshy," I agreed.

"Then we'd come to your big break with the BP Portrait Award four years ago-"

"I didn't win it," I interjected. "I was a runner-up. But they used my painting on the poster for the competition which led to several new commissions which meant that I could give up teaching and start painting full-time. So yes, that was a big step forward."

"And now the Duchess of Cornwall has put you right on the map!"

"I . . . guess she has. I was thrilled when the National Portrait Gallery asked me to paint her."

"And that's brought you some nice exposure." I flinched, but Clare prattled on, oblivious. "So have you had many famous sitters?"

I shook my head. "Most of them are 'ordinary' people who simply like the idea of having themselves or someone they love painted; the rest are either in public life in one way or another or have had a distinguished career which the portrait is intended to commemorate."

"So we're talking about the great and the good, then."

I shrugged. "You could call them that-professors and politicians, captains of industry, singers, conductors . . . "a few actors."

Clare nodded at a small unframed painting hanging by the door. "I love that one of David Walliams-the way his face looms out of the darkness."

"That's not the finished portrait," I explained. "He has that of course. This is just the model I did to make sure that the close-up composition was going to work."

"It reminds me of Caravaggio," she mused. I wished she'd get on with it. "He looks a bit like Young Bacchus . . ."

"I'm sorry, Clare," I interjected. "But can we . . .??" I nodded at the tape recorder.

"Oh-I keep chatting, don't I-let's crack on. "She lifted her headphones onto her coppery bob then held the microphone towards me. "So . . . " She started the tape. "Why do you paint portraits, Ella, rather than, say, landscapes?"

"Well . . . landscape painting's very solitary, "I answered carefully. "It's just you and the view. But with portraits you're with another human being and that's what's always fascinated me." Clare nodded and smiled for me to expand. "I feel excited when I look at a person for the very first time. When they sit in front of me I drink in everything I can about them. I study the colour and shape of their eyes, the line of their nose, the shade and texture of the skin, the outline of the mouth. I'm also registering how they are, physically."

"You mean their body language?"

"Yes. I'm looking at the way they tilt their head, and the way they smile; whether they look me in the eye, or keep glancing away; I'm looking at the way they fold their arms or cross their legs, or if they don't sit on the chair properly but perch forward on it or slouch down into it-because all that will tell me what I need to know about that person to be able to paint them truthfully."

"But-" A motorbike was roaring down the street. Clare waited for the noise to recede. "What does 'truthfully' mean-that the portrait looks like the person?"

"It ought to look like them." I rubbed a smear of chrome green off the palm of my hand. "But a good portrait should also reveal aspects of the sitter's character. It should capture both an outer and an inner likeness."

"You mean body and soul?"

"Yes . . . It should show the person, body and soul."

Clare glanced at her notes again. "Do you work from photographs?"

"No. I need to have the living person in front of me. I want to be able to look at them from every angle and to see the relationship between each part of their face. Above all I need to see the way the light bounces off their features, because that's what will give me the form and the proportions. Painting is all about seeing the light. So I paint only from life, and I ask for six two-hour sittings."

Clare's green eyes widened. "That's a big commitment-for you both."

"It is. But then, a portrait is a significant undertaking, in which the painter and sitter work together-there's a complicity to it-as though there's a pact between these two people."

She held the microphone a little closer. "And do your sitters open up to you?" I didn't reply. "I mean, there you are, on your own with them, for hours at a time. Do they confide in you?"

"Well . . . " I didn't like to say that my sitters confide the most extraordinary things. "They do sometimes talk about their marriages or their relationships," I answered carefully. "They'll even tell me about their tragedies, and their regrets. But I regard what happens during the sittings as not just confidential, but almost sacrosanct."

"So it's a bit like a Confessional, then," Clare suggested teasingly.

"In a way it is. A portrait sitting is a very special space. It has . . . "an intimacy: painting another human being is an act of intimacy."

"So . . . "have you ever fallen in love with any of your sitters?"

I smiled to hide the fact that I found the question intrusive. "I did once fall in love with a dachshund that someone wanted in the picture, but I've never fallen for a human sitter, no." I didn't add that as most of my male subjects were married they were in any case off-limits. I thought of the mess that Chloe had got herself into . . .

"Is there any kind of person you particularly enjoy painting?" Clare asked.

I paused while I considered the question. "I suppose I'm drawn to people who are a little bit dark-who haven't had happy-ever-after sort of lives. I like painting people who I sense are . . . complex."

"Why do you think that is?"

"I . . . find it more interesting to see the fight between the conflicting parts of someone's personality going on in the face." I glanced at the clock. It was half past six. I had to go. But . .. "Surely you have enough material now."

Clare nodded. "Yes, plenty." She lifted off her headphones, then smoothed down her glossy hair. "But could I have a quick look at your work?"

"Sure." I suppressed a sigh. "I'll get my portfolio."

As I fetched the big black folder from the other side of the studio Clare walked over to my big studio easel and studied the canvas standing on it. "Who's this?"

"That's my mother." I heaved the portfolio onto the table, then came and stood next to her. "She popped by this morning so I did a bit more. It's for her sixtieth birthday later this year."

"She's beautiful."

I studied my mother's round blue eyes with their large, exposed lids beneath perfectly arching eyebrows, at her sculpted cheekbones and her aquiline nose and at her left hand resting elegantly against her breast bone.Her skin was lined, but time had otherwise been kind. "It's almost finished."

Clare cocked her head to one side. "She has . . . poise."

"She was a ballet dancer."

"Ah." She nodded thoughtfully. "I remember now, it said so in that article about you." She looked at me. "And was she successful?"

"Yes-she was with English National Ballet then with the Northern Ballet Theatre in Manchester-this was in the seventies. That's her actually, on the wall, over there . . . "

Clare followed my gaze to a framed poster of a ballerina in a

full-length white tutu and bridal veil. "Giselle," Clare murmured. "How lovely . . . It's such a touching story, isn't it-innocence betrayed . . . "

"It was my mother's favourite role-that was in '79.Sadly she had to retire just a few months later."

"Why?" Clare asked. "Because of having children?"

"No-I was nearly five by then. It was because she was injured."

"In rehearsal?"

I shook my head. "At home. She fell, and broke her ankle-very badly."

Clare's brow pleated in sympathy. "How terrible." She looked at the portrait again, as if seeking signs of that disappointment in my mother's face. "It was hard . . . ." I had a sudden memory of my mother sitting at the kitchen table in our old flat, her head in her hands. She used to stay like that for a long time.

"What did she do then?" I heard Clare ask. "She decided that we'd move to London; once she'd recovered enough she began a new career as a ballet mistress." Clare looked at me enquiringly. "It's something that older or injured dancers often do. They work with a company, refreshing the choreography or rehearsing particular roles: my mother did it with the Festival Ballet for some years, then with Ballet Rambert."

"Does she still do that?" "No-she's more or less retired. She teaches one day a week at the English National Ballet School, otherwise she mostly does charity work; in fact she's organised a big gala auction tonight for Save the Children, which is why I'm pushed for time, as I have to be there, but in here . . . ."I went back to the table and opened the folder. ". . . . are the photos of all my portraits. There are about fifty."

"So it's your Face Book," Clare said with a smile. She sat on the sofa again and began to browse the images. "Fisherman . . . ." she murmured. "That one's on your website, isn't it? Ursula Sleeping . . . Emma. Polly's Face . . . ." She gave me a puzzled look. "Why did you call this one Polly's Face, given that it's a portrait?" "Oh, because Polly's my best friend-we've known eachother since primary school; she's a hand-and-foot model and was jokingly complaining that no-one ever showed any interest in her face so I said I'd paint it."

"Ah . . . ." I pointed to the next image. "That's Baroness Hale-the first woman Law Lord; this is Sir Philip Watts, a former chairman of Shell."

Clare turned the page again. "And there's the Duchess of Cornwall. She looks rather humourous." "She is, and that's the quality I most wanted people to see."

"And did the prince like it?" I gave a shrug. "He seemed to. He said nice things about it when he came to the unveiling at the National Portrait Gallery last month."

Clare turned to the next photo. "And who's this girl with the cropped hair?" "That's my sister, Chloe. She works for an ethical PR agency called PRoud, so anything to do with fair trade, green technology, organic food and farming-that kind of thing."

Clare nodded. "She's very like your mother." "She is-she has her fair complexion and ballerina physique." Whereas I am dark and sturdy, I reflected balefully-more Paula Rego than Degas.

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The Very Picture of You 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Often times period books tend to be bogged down with sub plots with little or no relationship to the main story. Not so with with "The Very Picture of You". This is the first book by Isabel Wolff, kudos to her she has proven herself as a strong writer. The plot has plenty of factual information to keep the reader engaged, the characters are real and well outlined. I would put this book in the category of a page turner, go read the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. It's not often I come across a book that I end up putting on my best books read list for the year. This goes on my best books of 2013 that I have read although it was not published this year. It was a highly enjoyable book with well developed characters. When ever I need something new to read I search the Barnes and Noble Reccommends list. A vintage affair by this author is on that list. Because I liked it I also read this one. Highly Reccommended!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Isabel Wolff tells a great story. Also, check out A Vintage Affair by the same author. Set in England, very good stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Highly recommend anything she does, great story
SharonRedfern More than 1 year ago
The Very Picture of You is a pleasant and satisfying read. The main character, Ella Graham, is a well known portrait artist whose personal life is somewhat disordered. She is happy with her career, not so much with her romantic life. She is having tiffs with her mother about her biological father, who walked out on the family when she was only five. Her mother was a famous dancer, now remarried, who is still bitter about " the other woman" causing the breakup of the family. Ella loves her stepdad but is beginning to wonder about her father. Ella has a half sister, Chloe, who has met a new man, Nate and is rebuilding her life after a doomed affair with a married man. Ella is very antagonistic towards Nate after overhearing something she shouldn't have but ends up having to paint his portrait after Chloe wins her services in a charity raffle. After she starts the work on the painting, Ella learns there is a great deal more to Nate than she originally saw. Besides Nate, Ella is painting three other portraits. One is of an elderly woman named Iris, who has a painting in her house that leads to the telling of a poignant story that resonates with Ella. Another portrait is of a local politician who is going through an emotional crisis that changes his appearance and personality. There is a mystery about this man that may be tied to the hit and run death of a local woman. The third portrait is of a soon to be forty woman who is totally not into the idea of the portait her husband has comissioned. Initially she appears to be shallow and selfish-all surface and no substance. Ms. Wolfe skillfully intoduces the four"sitters" and little by little gives us glimpses into their lives and personalities. Ella's interactions with the four leads to changes in her life and attitude. Just like in a picture, there are things that have happened and are happening that are not what they seem on the surface. Ella will need to delve deeper into her past in order to have a better future. There are characters in this story we may find unlikeable but we understand in the end why they acted as they did. Ms. Wolfe doesn't excuse bad behavior nor does she punish it. The characters have punished themselves when you really look at them and how they have lived their lives. This books has some parts that are a little formulaic but for the most part it is an interesting look at how people present themselves,how deep those outer layers can go and the work it takes for people to keep those layers intact.
KristynPleva More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book very much.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read many amazing books and series. There have been times where I read a book and wondered if it could be topped by another. I didn’t think so for a time, but Isabel Wolff has proved me wrong. She has written many wonderful novels like A Vintage Affair and Shadows Over Paradise, but The Very Picture of You is one of her greatest. The Very Picture of You is by Isabel Wolff. Set in modern-day London, Ella Graham makes a fine living painting portraits of many fascinating people. As she says in the book, “Painting’s always been, in a way, my… solace.” She has had a hard past, with her father leaving his family for “the other woman” when she was only three, or so her mother says. Now 35, her younger sister Chloe is engaged to an American working in London named Nate, whom Ella loathes. So when Chloe asks her to paint a portrait of her fiancé, Ella reluctantly accepts. Now, with the wedding coming up, and only a few sittings left with Nate, Ella’s life takes a very unexpected turn. Her father tries to reconnect with her, and she starts to realize that Nate isn’t how she thinks. All of the characters felt real. Ella Graham has been getting through life by painting since she was eight or nine. So, when she has to paint Nate’s portrait, she feels like she just can’t get away from her problems. A scene in the beginning of the book shows how much she had doubts about Nate. Mrs. Wolff writes, “‘Ella,’ she interrupted. ‘That’s not why I bid. Because it isn’t me you’re going to paint.’ ‘No?’ ‘It’s Nate.’ This couldn’t be happening to me.” Nate on the other hand, had been excited about having his portrait done by his fiancé’s sister, although he didn’t show it at first. Isabel Wolff has an amazing style when it comes to her writing. Her word choice is phenomenal, because it isn’t too wordy, and has just enough class to make this book all around well written. Using only Ella’s first person point of view, she captured her thoughts and reactions to others around her excellently. A great example is when her father had sent her an email about meeting again in London, “‘I recognized in your strong, dark features my own, and your story fitted with the life we shared so many years ago.’ ‘So many,’ I echoed bitterly.” This novel revolves around two main themes very well, love and deception. The Very Picture of You does not address them directly, yet the themes are obvious the more you delve into it. The themes also revolve around Ella’s broken family, as they try to set things right and stitch everything up. The Very Picture of You is an amazing book and I would definitely recommend it because it has a wonderfully written storyline, characters that are very relatable, and it made me feel like I could actually be Ella Graham. This book by Isabel Wolff is mainly for young adults, for the storyline may not be everyone’s taste, but almost anyone could adore it.
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A nice love story. It kept my interest.
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Enjoyable story - couldn't put it down. Sweet romance.
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csmmom More than 1 year ago
It has been many, many years since I have read and loved Isabel's book A Vintage Affair. I purchased this book years ago hoping to love it just as much. Unfortunately, I was bored. I didn't really get into the book until the last 100 pages. Some of the first 1/3 of the story was decent but otherwise, I kept wanting to put it down. This is a story about a portrait painter and the stories that her sitters tell. Maybe the subject matter wasn't for me. I wonder if I go back and reread A Vintage Affair, if I would still like it as much as I did back then.
AnnieMNH More than 1 year ago
This was a very light read for me. Interesting characters, but not a very complex plot. Enjoyable!.
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