The start of every chapter of Pictures at an Exhibition comes with a QR-Code that you can scan and will take you directly to the painting from the National Gallery’s site and give you all the information about the painting and the artist. What a lovely touch! Alternatively, you can see each of the paintings on Camilla’s site here as well, which is how I viewed them. Her site is also so wonderfully designed around old letters and paintings. It’s really very nicely done. I love her “Contact” with the address written on an old letter with stamps and postmarks.
Pictures at an Exhibition is the story of Claire, and the affair that develops between her and a woman named Daisy, from reading Daisy’s war-time letters. These letters were originally written to Claire’s husband’s grandmother, Elizabeth. Daisy would write to Elizabeth at the start of each month detailing her life in London during WWII and of her monthly visits to the National Gallery. Each month the Gallery would hang one single picture and make it available to the public. Each month, Daisy would go to the Gallery, view the painting and write Elizabeth all about it, of her feelings about the painting and also about life in London, the city that Elizabeth has left when she wed her Canadian man.
Following Elizabeth’s passing, package containing these monthly letters arrives for her grandson, Rob. These letters arrive at a key turning point in Rob and Claire’s marriage. Just five months prior, Claire was expecting their first child, was quite along in her pregnancy when a terrible tragedy occurred, causing her to miscarry the child. Claire has named the baby Oliver and is overcome with grief at his loss. Utterly consumed with grief she cannot forgive her husband Rob, for he had made himself unavailable at this critical time for Claire. Indirectly, and perhaps directly, she blames Rob for the death of her unborn child and their marriage is crumbling from the weight of it.
Intrigued, Claire begins to read Daisy’s letters. They become the single source of happiness in Claire’s life. She takes it upon herself to read one letter each month and to go see the same painting at the National Gallery that Daisy has written to Elizabeth about. One day, Claire meets a dashing man at the Gallery, named Dominic, and quickly things begin to spiral out of control for Claire. She finds herself quite dependant upon Daisy, her growing affair with Dominic and the increasingy distance between her and Rob.
“‘I think I’ve let it mean too much, Rob. I’m sorry. I’ve thought of nothing else for months. It’s just that she was there for me, when I needed someone.’ It felt almost embarrassing, saying these things, admiting to what she felt for someone who had never really been there, whom she had never met, who had not even written the letters to her.”
However, as her life more and more begins to resemble Daisy’s, Claire also begins to realize her life is with Rob and forgiveness is long over-due. She slowly draws Rob back in to her life and shares the wonder and mystery about Daisy. Together they go to see the final paintings and work to uncover what happened to Daisy – did she survive the war? Did she marry her lover?
“Home now. Home to her husband and his familiar hands and arms and voice, home at last. Home for good.”
I enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition, a lovely story all around. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Daisy’s letters alongside Claire, and while you may experience some fluster with Claire in the middle of the book with her crippling inability to move on, she does capture your heart and the story ends quite well. Thank you again to Camilla for sending it my way, much appreciated!
Here is one of the pieces of art that is written about in Pictures at an Exhibition. It is titled, “The Painter’s Daughter’s” by Gainsborough. (sorry, it is very small) You can however find out about it from the National Gallery’s archives here.