I remember picking up Matthew Plampin’s Will and Tom in the bookshop at the Tate Britain – and then putting it back, just as I’d put back half a dozen other hardbacks in the last day. In truth, after lugging many and many and many pounds of books across Europe over the years, I’ve learned, when I’m travelling, to only buy the ones that can’t conceivably be procured through the Net – either digitally or physically. So I jotted down the title in my notebook’s dedicated page, and in time the novel found its way to my Kindle. Then, for some reason, it took me a few years to get round to actually read it. If you have a To Read List of any length, you know how these things happen…
But now I have read Will and Tom, at long last (mostly during my recent jaunt to London), and found this tale of the young William Turner quite a treat.
Will, who arrives at a prospective new patron’s country house on a fine summer day, and finds the realities of art patronage far less comfortable than he had imagined, is a beautifully drawn character. In his early twenties, a little rough around the edges, quietly ambitious, assured of his enormous talent and nothing else, he sees the world through his fine painter’s eye, and a whole host of insecurities. A diffident second-guesser in the best circumstances (and visiting with a wealthy art enthusiast to fulfill an easy, promising first commission should qualify), Will soon begins to suspect that Beau Lascelles’s house-party conceals something else. some tricky deeper game, even some trap perhaps that could wreck and unwary painter’s prospects… Though why this should be is not apparent at all.
Thinking better of his initial irritation, Will plans on keeping his head down, quiclky make the sketches he needs, and flee from both the mercurial condescension of the Lascelles family and the perplexing power games among the servants downstairs. But just when he thinks that he might make his escape unscathed, another guest appears at Harewood – perhaps the last fellow-artist Will would wish around.
Tom Girtin, doomed, handsome, undisciplined, enormously talented and recklessly confident, is something of a friend (though Will won’t admit the term even to himself) and much of a rival. Will is rather ashamed of his jealousy – but jealous he is – and increasingly panicked: why had Beau Lascelles to bring these two together? Is this a cruel joke? A test? A contest? A sport for the rich and idle, to watch the two rivals painters scrabbling for favour?
Will wants nothing more than to make his exit, but how can he, when Tom seems bent to put himself in harm’s way – dragging Will’s reputation with him? How ever is he to rescue both himself and heedless, headstrong, generous Tom from the tangle of deceit, lies, cruelties, and potential ruin that festers under the roof of Harewood?
As I said, this book is a treat. Plampin writes beautifully, in a lovingly detailed and yet rather merciless present tense that conveys Will’s artist’s sensibility, frustrations, and growing paranoia. Young Turner, surrounded by a small host of characters he keeps misreading, is not, when you think of it, an especially admirable character: morose petty, suspicious, envious of Tom’s confidence and easy talent, sporting a huge chip on his shoulder, he should be at least a little unpleasant. And yet Plampin makes him so true, so human, so relatable in his flaws and his struggles, that it is impossible not to root for him, and wince in sympathy at his doubts and blunders. Add to this the truly lovely descriptions of landscapes, people and artwork (Plampin’s background as an art historians shows and shines here), and the tension of a maze of unresolved lies – and you have an accomplished, engaging, and highly satisfying read.