The Portrait by Iain Pears

The BookDepository

The Portrait

Five words from the blurb: art, critic, sitting, power, canvas

I loved Stone’s Fall when I read it a few years ago and so was excited about trying one of his other books. Unfortunately, although it was written just as skillfully, The Portrait wasn’t to my taste.

The Portrait is set at the beginning of the 20th century and the entire book takes the form of a monologue given by portrait painter, Henry Morris MacAlpine. Henry has summoned William Naysmith, a highly-influential art critic, to his home in order to paint his portrait. The pair used to be friends, but as the book progresses the reader learns the truth about their history together.

The writing quality was excellent throughout, but the style grated on me. It sounds odd to say this, but it felt a bit impolite to have someone speaking non-stop at me. I longed to hear the other side of the conversation, or a description, or anything other than his endless musings.

If you want to break with the past, exterminate history beyond all hope of recovery, there is no better way of accomplishing it than a good conversation, I find. I think it was the discipline of it which attracted me. I was, after all, living in this house on my own, without any attachments, and I needed to give some form to the week. You’ll see that it has influenced my painting considerably.

The fact I’m not an art fan probably didn’t help. References to famous painters went over my head and discussions of painting techniques bored me. I only made it to the end because it was a short book and because I’d heard about the surprising ending. Unfortunately I didn’t find the ending surprising – it had been hinted at from the beginning.

If you aren’t put off by the sound of a 200 page monologue on portrait painting then you’ll probably love this, but I’m going to put this experience to the back of my mind and look forward to reading An Instance Of The Fingerpost.


The thoughts of other bloggers

The Portrait is an easy novel to underrate. Winged Centaur

No doubt it is probably more pretentious than some people will care for, but I rather enjoyed it nonetheless. A Librarian’s Life in Books

… entertaining little book! Bibliolatry

Send to Kindle


  1. David says:

    Hmm… I read, and adored (though it took me an age to finish) ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ fifteen years ago and haven’t read anything else by the author since. My tastes have changed considerably over that time and I don’t know whether I would still enjoy it quite as much. But, you have intrigued me with this one. I love books about painters and painting and “discussions of painting techniques” actually sounds like fun to me (!). Having said that I am almost always disappointed and/or frustrated by descriptions of paintings in books (I’ve lost count of the number of books where a painting will be described in great detail and as I try to imagine it I realise it couldn’t possibly exist unless it was huge and somehow three dimensional!) so I’m just as likely to hate this as love it. One that I might try sometime, but won’t be rushing out to buy perhaps.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, I can see you liking this one. The writing is very good and I don’t think it describes any paintings that can’t exist (but my art knowledge/vision is so weak that I can’t be sure!) This should be easily available in your local library and is very short so it must be worth a try at some point?

  2. Sandy says:

    Well as you know I too loved Stone’s Fall, but I think the beauty of that book was not only the great writing, but the TWIST. You could definitely see Pears’ ability to go on (and on and on) but I didn’t care because it was all leading up to something big. I’m sorry this one wasn’t as engaging…

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I agree that the twist was the main positive for Stone’s Fall and that was why I stuck with The Portrait. I’d heard it had a twist that was equally good. It didn’t. Such a shame as I love twists and it has been ages since I read a good one.

  3. stujallen says:

    not one for me I think Jackie but another art based fiction book ,know pears mainly are but so many along this line in the last couple of years ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, There are far too many books out there to waste time on books that aren’t for us :-)

  4. Jenners says:

    I still have Sones Fall on my TBR list but haven’t gotten to it yet. Probably from your review.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I hope you get to it one day – it has an amazing ending :-)

  5. Ifi says:

    I Love off beat as you know but I’m not too sure about painting techniques though! This one does not pique my curiosity AT ALL. But thank you for the reminder, I must read Stone’s Fall!!

    1. Jackie says:

      Ifi, Stones Fall is long and has a few slow sections, but it is all worth it in the end. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  6. I remember enjoying this book and found the ending sad but not unexpected. I haven’t yet read any of his other books, and suspect I’ll really like them.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, I think you’d like them too. I’ll let you know how I get on with the rest of them.

  7. Chinoiseries says:

    200 pages, a not too daunting number, but you nevertheless found it difficult to get through? :s I’m not a fan of books that lecture on and on about topics that I’m not very familiar with. Makes me think that The Portrait was aimed at art-lovers.

  8. Alyce says:

    I loved Stone’s Fall, and I really would love to read more of his books. I’m not sure about the monologue aspect, but I do like reading about art.

Leave a Reply