Barbara Ewing’s lively historical novel revolves around two frauds and a spirited 18th-century heroine with an obsession to become a painter. Told in summary, it seems Mills-and-Boonish, but the novel works better than it sounds in retelling.
Born into a dissolute and rackety family of faded nobility, the young Grace Marshall is made to understand from an early age that her sex will bar her from her intensely felt vocation. When the plague decimates her family, and her two remaining brothers leave her in their native Bristol, Grace is left to work in a bleak little hat shop.
The first fraud of this entertaining story becomes clear when her brother Philip reappears in her life, having re-invented himself as Filipo di Vecillio, a painter whose flattering portraits have turned him into London’s darling. Fulfilling the promise he had made to return for Grace, Philip proceeds to furnish his sister with her new identity as his housekeeper. He also makes it clear that he himself must be the only artist in the family. Rechristened Francesca, Grace is relegated to the domestic sphere, but this new London life allows her to eavesdrop on the painters and experts who discuss aesthetics, money and current art world fashions around her brother’s dining table. Grace becomes expert at plotting her own apprenticeship.
The second fraud of the novel concerns a forgery which Grace undertakes to gain financial independence, but in this cleverly told story the wider themes of dissembling and integrity, both in art and the lived life, jostle for the reader’s attention.
Perhaps there are times when our heroine’s perspectives shine through too modern a prism, but the fast-paced story compensates for the odd anachronistic jolt.
Barbara Ewing deftly conjures up Augustan London with an eye for detail, and her historical research never weighs down the dynamic of her tale. The novel is populated with actual painters of the time and she makes their conversations convincing.
Barbara Ewing, The Fraud (Sphere), 397 pp, £7.99 (pb) ISBN 9781847442024
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A girl’s own 18th-century art adventure'