The Vanishing Man | Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming's gripping account of one man's obsession with a painting by Velazquez could well be titled The Vanishing Men because of the elusiveness of both its chief protagonists. Of Velazquez himself we know comparatively little beyond his courtly duties for Philip IV of Spain and of John Snare, the man who bought a portrait by him in 1845 that came to dominate and arguably ruin his life, there is no surviving image so we have no idea even what he looked like. But Velazquez left his great paintings and Snare a number of pamphlets and other documents and from these two sources Laura Cumming has compiled this intelligent, fascinating, informative and intriguing book. 

Cumming is an art critic by trade but her work is mercifully free of the artspeak that seems to dominate every gallery exhibition and publication these days. The Vanishing Man would make a good title for a thriller (in fact it has done) and Cumming presents her extraordinary tale with all the pace and plot twists of a crime writer. So the first thing I want to say about this book is that it is an extremely compelling, page-turning read. This is not a dry piece of art history but a book in which author enthusiasm and erudition is effectively put to the good service of presenting her material in the most engaging way possible for the reader. It is not always so.

The story starts in 1845 when John Snare, a relatively prosperous stationer, printer and bookseller from Reading, sees a picture high on the wall of a country house, Radley Hall. The contents and house are about to be auctioned off and Snare bids a successful eight pounds for the blackened, grimy and over varnished picture of a young man with a youthful beard. Is the painting of Charles I? Could it be by Van Dyke? Snare dealt in engravings and so had a sound knowledge of these matters but he is puzzled. The painting shows Charles with a beard but it is the image of a young man. So this must be an image of Charles as a prince; but Van Dyke does not arrive in England until eight years after Charles has ascended the throne. Something is not right. But what clinches it for Snare is a moment of high drama. At the auction preview, "He waited until the other visitors had gone and then dragged a ladder from the library into the salon where the large painting hung high on the wall, so darkened by time that they could hardly make out the features. Clambering up until he was eye to eye with Charles, Snare wet a finger and rubbed the surface like a window cleaner. 'I can never forget the impression,' he wrote, 'as the tones came alive like magic'.

 Although Snare was convinced he had discovered a Velazquez, possibly painted when Charles went on a doomed trip to Spain to seek the hand of the infanta, he kept quiet about it for a long time. But he exhibited the painting in his shop and set about trying to establish its authenticity and provenance. It is assumed by all to be a Van Dyke but Snare knows better. His heart and his mind are committed to proving that he is the possessor a lost Velazquez not because he wants to sell it, indeed he has no intention of doing that having early on turned down a huge offer of a thousand pounds, but because Snare has embarked on what can only be called a life-long obsession. 

 It is an obsession that will eventually ruin him. It will see him arrested and accused of theft in Scotland, ridiculed by the art establishment and mocked in court. His painting will be impounded and derided. But throughout Snare holds the faith and watches over his prize like Gollum over his treasure, exhibiting it for a fee in London and then New York where he and it will eventually disappear.

 Interspersed with her account of Snare's rise and fall, Cumming writes a hymn to Velazquez, describing his work with insight and poetic flights of fancy that seem entirely appropriate. Is he the greatest portrait painter that ever lived? Cumming takes us through a number of images of which there are colour plates in the book and makes a powerful case for his excellence, although she is far too intelligent and well-versed to claim a "greatest" title.

 The Vanishing Man is an extraordinary book. Cumming writes absorbingly well about the paintings and the tale of Snare and his tribulations is one that frankly you could not make up. The combination is potent. This is an enthralling read and I couldn't put it down. I will be pleasantly surprised if I read anything else over the course of the next year that gives me so much engaged pleasure.