If this short novel doesn’t capture the reader’s attention, then little else will. Scottish painter Henry MacAlpine welcomes his old friend William Nasmyth, England’s foremost art critic, to his tiny cottage on Houat, an island off the coast of France. Nasmyth has come to sit for a portrait. This will not be any portrait, but part of a triptych, showing the critic as he was, as he is and as he will be. MacAlpine’s is the lone voice in the narrative. As he chats with Nasmyth, filling in the details of his life since abruptly leaving England at the height of his career, reminiscing about their youthful days in Paris and later years pursuing wealth and fame in London, it becomes obvious that MacAlpine holds deep-seated anger toward the critic. Over the course of several days, his moods swinging from chatty camaraderie to open hostility and back, the suspense builds, much like the storms that form and surge over the sea around MacAlpine’s home.
One of the many themes explored in this multifaceted novel is that of the relationship between art, the artist and the critic. Can one exist without the other? Can honest judgment exist untainted by personal ambition? Further, the setting of this novel, sometime before World War I, was a time of great change in the art world, with new trends and philosophies challenging the established elite. How does the artist maneuver such change without being either derivative or dated? Great questions. Gripping novel.