Enigmatic Women and Cryptic Art

by Michael Reidy

Here is a third novel featuring the urbane and gifted portraitist, Sir Nigel Thomas, and his celebrity friend, the actress Ligeia Gordon, known privately as Sophie Gregg. Following On the Edge of Dreams and Nightmares (2018) and Circle of Vanity (2022), you will want to come bang up to date and complete the set with Bickering (2023). Once again Sir Nigel finds himself sleuthing within the art world, raising significant problems of dating, questions of attribution, provenance and authenticity, and, in consequence, the vexing question of value.

You will also meet again mother and daughter, April and Marissa, of Bickering Place in Lincolnshire. Readers of Circle of Vanity will remember that, when he visited the house to paint Marissa, the behaviour of these women towards him led him to conclude that they were both deranged. Despite his venerable years, our protagonist is what people of a coarser disposition would call a ‘babe magnet’. His attractiveness to good-looking women with ‘a past’ is the source of the comedy of manners which often has the artist inwardly squirming with embarrassment, while outwardly maintaining his dignity.

Nevertheless, he accepts an invitation from Marissa to visit Bickering Place again. There is to be an archeological dig which will attempt to expose the older history of the site. The outlines of a building are revealed. Is it a hall, a barn, a chapel? Marissa wants Sir Nigel to make sketches of the progress of the dig, some of which could be turned into paintings.

Marissa continues with her skittish teasing and the reader may begin to think that her arch behaviour is a fundamental part of her character rather than specifically aimed at Sir Nigel. Whatever the case, she proves remarkably adept and well-organised in managing the dig and catering for the extensive personnel involved.

When human remains are found, and parts of a pistol, the police are involved and the dig is closed for the foreseeable future, while the CID investigate. Meanwhile, Sir Nigel stumbles upon a detective case of his own. Three paintings of some antiquity are found in a cupboard: a portrait of a woman, a landscape, and a floral still life. He asks permission to take them to London for expert scrutiny, but it is in large measure as a result of his own educated analysis, that the hermetic iconography of the portrait and the still-life are unlocked. In Tudor times, Lincolnshire was particularly rocked by the religious upheavals of the era. The symbology of the portrait’s detail, and of the flowers, expresses in coded terms an adherence to the old faith.

But I am close to spoiler territory here. I will just add that just over halfway through the book, Sir Nigel receives a letter from Rachel Rawding, asking him to paint her portrait. He accepts and the later part of the book (including extracts from her notebooks) involves their developing relationship and links to Bickering Place. Though she is much younger, Sir Nigel finds himself attracted to her relative candour. ‘It was a welcome relief,’ he says, ‘from the vacillating affectations and pseudo-infatuation of Marissa.’

This is only a snapshot of complex book of interweaving threads with a very large cast, and tendrils reaching back into the past. What I like most about it is the persiflage between Sir Nigel and Sophie, a sophisticated dance of rapprochement and recoil. One feels that they should be more intimately together, but cannot be, because of Sophie’s secret (disclosed in On the Edge of Dreams and Nightmares). I liked the realisation of place – perhaps one day, Reidy will treat us to a scene in Lincoln Cathedral. Although Lincolnshire is England’s second largest county, there is often the feeling that it is a little out of the way, and Reidy captures this notion exactly.

Most of all I like the totally convincing portrayal of all aspects of the creation and significance of paintings. Reidy has insisted elsewhere that he has no direct knowledge or skill in painting, and this is hard to believe. His research, therefore, must have been extensive and painstaking. For me, the very best part of the book is his description of the  three images trouvées. One can see them so very clearly in the mind’s eye. And the scholarly analysis of their cryptic meanings is exquisite.

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