I love a good reading challenge and The Themed Reading Challenge is one of my favourites because I can dictate the terms. Last year I picked Our Feathered Friends – 4 books with birds in the title. This year, it’s Months of the Year. You’ve guessed it but instead of just 4 books I intend finding and reading 12 books, one for each month.
I reviewed January’s title here – that was easy, the book had been waiting patiently in the TBR for a couple of years. I had no February title to hand but Jonathan Smith’s “Summer in February” shot to the top of the list when searching on Amazon. The author was unknown to me but, given my interest in art history, the blurb sounded appealing. With 2 five-star reviews and endorsements from A S Byatt and Margaret Drabble, it was certainly worth a 1p Amazon marketplace punt!
Sir Alfred Munnings, retiring President of the Royal Academy, chooses the 1949 Annual Banquet to launch a savage attack on Modern Art. The effect of his diatribe is doubly shocking, leaving not only his distinguished audience gasping but also many people tuning in to the BBC’s live radio broadcast. But as he approaches the end of his assault, the speech suddenly dissolves into incoherence when he stumbles over a name – a name he normally takes such pains to avoid – that takes him back forty years to a special time and a special place. Summer in February is a disturbing and moving re-creation of a celebrated Edwardian artistic community enjoying the last days of a golden age soon to be shattered by war. As resonant and understated as The Go-Between, it is a love story of beauty, deprivation and tragedy.
Neither had I heard of Sir Alfred Munnings (my interest in art history is fairly recent) but in the years preceding WWI his paintings of horses were selling for upwards of £400. Mega money then. These days one of his pictures could easily set you back £300,000. The novel depicts him as a rumbunctuous, life-and- soul-of-the-party type, the vital centre of a colony of artists who had gathered in Cornwall in those pre-war years. A lover of poetry, much of it committed to memory, his party piece was reciting Poe’s “The Raven” by heart, regardless of the state of his sobriety. Blind in one eye (the result of a freak accident), his accomplishments all the more astounding and his paintings of horses and hunts were (still are?) second to none.
The central drama, spanning 1911-1914, unfolds when Florence, a society beauty, joins the group at Lamorna. Munning’s friend, Gilbert, is besotted. She is “Botticelli’s Venus”. So too is Munnings, only he lacks Gilbert’s sensitivity, but his feelings become clear as he paints the picture, Morning Ride, that adorns the dustjacket. That’s Florence, sitting side-saddle on Munning’s horse, Merrilegs. It becomes clear that Florence will choose one of the two men to marry. She makes the wrong decision and tragedy ensues.
It’s interesting that these events are not mentioned in Munning’s autobiography. Obviously he felt shamed by them. Yet Smith has no black in his palette. He shows Munnings to be a loyal man, a caring, if somewhat controlling, friend – the letters he writes to Gilbert show a fine sense of humour, a compassionate man. But Florence was ill-matched with “Alfred the Great”, “Alfred the Gregarious”. She was a lady who suspected herself to be nothing more than an object of prestige. I’m not convinced that’s true but it is suggested by a number of his actions.
The genesis of a famous painting, a tragic love triangle, subtle characterisation surprisingly held together by relevant quotations from Poe’s mesmerising “Raven” combined to deliver a well-written and enjoyable read. Well done Amazon!