The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

An intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession

Doll Factory

Picador|2 May 2019|336 pages|Review e-book copy|5*

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is one of the best books I read so far this year. It captivated me with its tale of Iris, the young woman who worked painting dolls in Mrs Salter’s Dolls Emporium, but who dreamed of being an artist. It tells of her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite artists – in particular with Louis Frost (a fictional character) who attracted by her beauty and her red hair wants her to model for him. She agrees, despite the disapproval of her parents and twin sister Rose, on the condition that he teaches her to paint. Meanwhile Silas Reed, a taxidermist and a collector of curiosities, worships her from afar and fantasises that she returns his love.  

But it’s much more than my brief outline conveys. This is historical fiction that transports me back in time and place to the 1850s when the Great Exhibition is being constructed and then opened to the public, a time when the young artists who had recently formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, first formed in the summer of 1848, are challenging the art world with their vivid paintings, at once both stylised and naturalistic. The descriptions take me straight into London of the early 1850s with all its sights and smells, its squalor and bustling crowds as people go about their daily lives.

There are some really memorable characters, such as ten year old Albie, who collects dead creatures for Silas. He lives with his sister, a prostitute, in a ramshackle house down a dead-end alley and with just one tooth he dreams of buying a set of false teeth. Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt also appear alongside the fictional characters and I loved all the details about their paintings, and their fascination with wombats. Rossetti owned two wombats – the inspiration for Louis’ wombat, Guinevere, who lives in his studio.

As I read on I began to feel a growing sense of menace and the tension between the characters rose almost to an unbearable peak as the book reached its conclusion. It’s full of atmosphere, dark and gothic towards the end as it reached its climax – and left me wanting more. It’s wonderful – historical fiction, art history, and a love story as well as a dark tale of obsession, pulsing with drama, intrigue and suspense.  I loved it!

About the Author

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Edinburgh and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA in 2017 where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship.

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Noel Award 2018. It will be published in twenty-eight languages and TV rights have sold to Buccaneer Media.

Many thanks to the publishers, Picador, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Landscapes: John Berger on Art

Landscapes : John Berger on Art, edited by Tom Overton is a collection of essays by art critic, novelist, poet, and artist John Berger written over the past 60 plus years. However both the title and the cover art – a painting of a landscape – led me to think it would discuss landscapes. But I should have taken more note of this sentence in the blurb-‘Landscapes offers a tour of the history of art, but not as you know it.‘ It is definitely not art as I know it but it is a “landscape” of Berger’s thoughts on his life, on people and ideas that have influenced him, artists and authors that he liked and disliked, with very little in it about landscapes. There are essays on his life, people, ideology, philosophy and on art history and theory about the nature and meaning of art.

Having said that there are sections that I liked and enjoyed, such as the chapters on The Ideal Critic and the Fighting Critic and on Cubism. Knowing next to nothing about cubism and not liking the cubist paintings I have seen, I think I now understand what the artists were attempting, moving away from art that imitated nature to their representation of reality on a two dimensional plane to portray a more complex image of reality.

I am obviously not the target audience for this book!

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1131 KB
  • Print Length: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Verso (1 Nov. 2016)

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley.

ABC Wednesday: A is for The Artist’s House at Argenteuil

Another round of ABC Wednesday began today. Amazingly it’s been going for around 5 years and this is Round 11.

A is for The Artist’s House at Argenteuil by Claude Monet, one of my favourite Impressionist paintings. It’s oil on canvas painted in 1873, now held in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Monet moved to Argenteuil in 1871 and lived there until 1877. This was a prolific period for him – he was happy and well-off during that time. It was whilst he was living there that he developed a passion for gardening, influenced by fellow artist Gustave Caillebotte. This painting shows the first house he lived in at Argenteuil, with beds of red, white and blue flowers in front of the house, a creeper covering much of the wall and potted plants in large blue and white tubs on the gravel drive.

I especially like this painting because of the colours and also the figures adding personality – the little child with a hoop is Monet’s five-year old son, Jean, whilst his wife, Camille is seen in the doorway.

P is for Pissarro

L'Hermitage a Pontoise 1867, oil on canvas

 Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903) was one of the French Impressionist painters. In 1866 he moved to Pontoise on the banks of the River Oise, on the outskirts of Paris and lived there until 1884. He loved the area and painted 300 or so paintings in that period. L’Hermitage à Pontoise, the painting above, is one of my favourites of his, painted in a realistic rather than an impressionist style, showing an idyllic village scene and the hills behind. I like all the detail and his use of light and shade drawing attention to the figures on the road and highlighting the houses.

Red Roofs, 1877, oil on canvas

Ten years later he painted Red Roofs showing a corner of the village in winter with the traditional 18th century houses viewed through the trees. I like the blend of colours with the differing tones of the red of the roofs, fields and earth in the foreground, contrasting with the green of the grass and the blue of the sky. The twisting forms of the trees with their vertical trunks contrast sharply with the geometric shapes of the houses.

An ABC Wednesday post.

R is for Renoir: La Loge

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919), French Impressionist Artist

I’m spoilt for choice, but on reflection I think La Loge (1874) is my favourite painting by Renoir.

The ‘loge’ is a box at the theatre nearest the stage. This painting is my favourite Renoir because of its fine detail within an Impressionist painting. I love the precise depiction of the lady’s face and jewellery, the soft fabric of her dress, its flimsy lace bodice and cuffs and the splashes of red against the black and white. She is the focus of the painting with the gentleman behind her in the background, but my eyes are also drawn to him with the light glinting on his opera glasses.

This is a painting that draws our attention to where the people are looking – the gentleman is looking up at other people and the lady has put down her opera glasses and is maybe showing  herself to the audience. There is an ambiguity about this painting, which always has me wondering just what is going on.

There is a detailed description of this painting on The Courtauld Gallery’s website, where the painting is held. I was disappointed it wasn’t on display when I visited a couple of years ago.

An ABC Wednesday post.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett: Book Review

I didn’t write about Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett as soon as I’d finished reading it, which is a pity because I only made a few notes whilst reading and now my memory of it is fading fast. It took me some time to get really involved in the story, which is a mixture of fiction and history. I liked the historical elements very much. The fictional side mixed in quite well but I found some of it a bit too sentimental and somewhat contrived.

It’s the story of Sir Thomas More’s fall from Henry VIII’s favour and that of his adopted daughter Meg Giggs and her love for two men – John Clements, the family’s former tutor, and the painter, Hans Holbein. Bennett puts forward a theory about John Clements’ true identity drawn from an analysis and an interpretation of two paintings by Hans Holbein of the More family and also his painting, The Ambassadors. I was fascinated by this and the detail in the paintings, enhanced by the inclusion in the book of a reproduction of the plan for Holbein’s first portrait of the More Family painted in 1527 -28 and a colour reproduction of  a second portrait of the family attributed to Holbein, even though it is signed ‘Rowlandas Lockey’.

I liked the way Bennett portrayed different aspects of Sir Thomas More’s character; in his early life he was a humanist and friend of Erasmus, later a courtier and Henry VIII’s Catholic chancellor, who persecuted Protestant heretics. This contrasts with his family life, where he is relaxed, generous and gentle and Meg cannot reconcile her knowledge of him as a father with his cruel and fanatical persecution of the heretics.

It combines a love story, art history and historical fiction providing an insight into the Tudor period at a time of great social and religious change.

Book Review: The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe

Non-fiction books often take me a while to read and Sue Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists is no exception; not however, because it’s difficult to read or boring, but simply because I decided to read it slowly. The Impressionists were a mixed bunch, including Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, and Caillebotte. I feel I got to know some of them more than others and have only just skimmed the surface of their lives, which is understandable in a book covering so many people.

The Private Lives of the Impressionists tells how the early leaders of the group met when students in the studios of Paris. There was Monet, from an affluent family background originally from Normandy, Pissarro a Portuguese Jew from a very different background, born in the Dutch West Indies, Cezanne, a strange and intense student from Aix-en-Provence. The group widened with the addition of Renoir, from a working family (his father was a tailor from Limoges), Sisley the son of an English merchant and a Frenchwoman, and Bazille the son of a wealthy Montpellier wine-grower. They rebelled against the Salon and were pilloried and criticised for their work. They struggled to make a living, although now their paintings sell for millions.

Manet, whose father was a judge and mother the god-daughter of  the King of Sweden, was not really a part of their group , although over the years he supported them but never exhibited at the Impressionists exhibitions. To say that Manet was a complex character is an understatement and I’m going to read a biography devoted to him alone at some point. I’d also like to know more about Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and Renoir in particular.

This book follows their lives and loves and how their art developed over 26 years between 1860 when they first met and the introduction of their work to America in 1886. The Epilogue summarised what happened to each artist as the end of the century approached and the Paris art scene changed completely.

I now feel rather sad to have come to the end but there is a bibliography, essential for non-fiction books in my view, listing other books on the artists. If I’m being picky I’d criticise the bibliography because it’s arranged a-z by author – I’d prefer it to be arranged the individual artists. I’d also have liked more illustrations, but there are plenty of books on Impressionism.  I’d also love to travel the world to see their paintings – in London, Paris, and the US – well maybe I’ll manage the London galleries.

These are some of my favourite paintings, some of which are in this book.

Bar at the Folies Bergere by Manet
Red Roofs, 1877
La Loge by Renoir

This is the  eleventh library book I’ve read this year – still on target to complete the Support Your Local Library Challenge.

This Week’s Library Books

I don’t need to borrow any more books, but I had to go to the library to return The Gargoyle (see here) and of course then I couldn’t leave without at least looking at the books. This  week I concentrated on non-fiction as I already have a few novels on the go. I  read non-fiction much more slowly than fiction, so I don’t read many.

The photo below shows part of my local library’s non-fiction section. It’s not large but it has a good selection of books and I always find something of interest there.


Non Fiction Books

I came home with three books (I was very restrained remembering all my unread books):


  • I don’t read much poetry but The Poems of Thomas Hardy, selected and introduced by Claire Tomalin caught my attention as I’ve read several of Hardy’s novels, but none of his poetry. Hardy wrote over a thousand poems and this selection traces his experiences of life and love. This reminded me that over a year ago I started to read her biography of Hardy, which I’d put down for a while to read more of Hardy’s own works before finishing it. Time to get back to it soon.
  • Impressionism by Paul Smith. I’ve become very interested in the Impressionists since taking a short course recently. The course concentrated on the sites they painted rather than their lives. To supplement that I’m already reading Sue Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists. This book looks at the social, political and intellectual contexts in which Impressionism came about. Plus it has many colour illustrations of their paintings.
  • Lost For Words by John Humphrys. I like John Humphry’s style – this book is about the “mangling and manipulation of the English Language”. He thinks language should be “simple, clear and honest” and provides examples of cliches, meaningless jargon and evasive language (which I detest).

The Madonna of the Almonds

I’ve just finished reading Marina Fiorato’s new novel, The Madonna of the Almonds, which will be out on 14 May. It is a love story above all, but there is so much more as well. It’s set in Italy in the 16th century, about a young widow, Simonetta di Saronno, struggling to save her home, who meets the artist Bernadino, a protege of Leonardo da Vinci. 

 I was fascinated most of all by the artist Bernardino Luini who is employed to paint frescos in the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Saronno, just at the time when Simonetta is trying to cope with the death of her husband at the Battle of Pavia. Little is known of Bernardino’s life. He was born around 1480/82 and died in 1532 and I enjoyed how Marina wove descriptions of his paintings into her story. Now I want to go to Saronna to see the actual paintings and to the Monastery of San Maurizio in Milan where his frescos adorn the church walls.

Bernardino was so captivated by Simonetta’s beauty that her face is the face of every female Saint, every Magdalene and every Madonna that he painted. Simonetta at first resists Bernardino’s advances but of course eventually falls in love with him, causing scandal in the local community. Bernardino has to leave Saronna for Milan, leaving Simonetta to fend for herself. With the help of a Jew, known as Manodorata (because of the golden hand replacing his own hand that had been chopped off by the Spanish Inquisition) she discovers how to make a delicious liqueur, Amaretto, from the almond trees, the only crop growing on her estate. The persecution of the Jews  forms a chilling strand in this book as Manodorato flees from his burning house with his two young sons, unable to rescue his wife from the flames.

Interwined within the story of Bernardino and Simonetta’s story are many tales of the Saints which inspire him to paint the frescos, seeing them in his mind’s eye as he listens to their stories told to him by the Abbess, Sister Bianca. Eventually he returns to Saronna determined to marry Simonetta if she is still free. But there are yet more obstacles to be overcome …

I love the story-telling aspects of this book, its rich descriptions of art and the detailed history of the period. I love Italy, history, art history and almonds, especially Amaretto, so this book just could not fail to delight me.