The Optickal Illusion by Rachel Halliburton #bookreview


In this vividly fashioned debut, Rachel Halliburton draws from the sordid details of a genuine scandal that deceived the British Royal Academy to deliver a stirring tale on the elusive goal of achieving artistic renown.

It is 1797 and in Georgian London, nothing is certain anymore: the future of the monarchy is in question, the city is aflame with conspiracies, and the French could invade any day. Amidst this feverish atmosphere, the American painter Benjamin West is visited by a dubious duo comprised of a blundering father and vibrant daughter, the Provises, who claim they have a secret that has obsessed painters for centuries: the Venetian techniques of master painter Titian.

West was once the most celebrated painter in London, but he hasn’t produced anything of note in years, so against his better judgment he agrees to let the intriguing Ann Jemima Provis visit his studio and demonstrate the techniques from the document. What unravels reveals more than West has ever understood—about himself, the treachery of the art world, and the seductive promise of greatness. Rich in period detail of a meticulously crafted Georgian society, The Optickal Illusion demonstrates the lengths women must go to make their mark on a society that seeks to underplay their abilities.

Hardcover, 352 pages

Expected publication: February 8th 2018 by Duckworth Overlook       ISBN139780715651971


Amazon UK  –  £15.18 – buy online and support your local bookstore  –  £12.45


Book Depository  –  £12.76

About Rachel Halliburton

Rachel Halliburton graduated in English and Classics from Cambridge. As a journalist and the former Deputy Editor of the Time Out she has interviewed notable people including Gorbachev, Yoko Ono and Kissinger for publications such as The Times, Financial Times, New Statesman, Spectator, Evening Standard and Independent. She lives in London.


This is a sumptuous read, stepping back to Georgian times to take a look behind the scandal that rocked the art world, deceiving so many prominent artists of the time, and looks at those behind the deception.

I have to admit to knowing very little of the art world, although reading this book has made me eager to learn more, and of the scandal that hit the British Royal Academy but this imaginative and beautifully written novel, sets out to go behind the story and looks at all those involved. The American painter, Benjamin West, is the president of the Royal Academy but his star is waning and has many lined up to take his place, so when he is made aware of a manuscript by a father and daughter duo that is alleged to contain secrets which most artists would kill for, he is intrigued and is taken in by their stories and wants to use these secrets for his own gain.

The father and daughter have their own reasons for wanting to share this manuscript, and the daughter particularly, Ann Jemima, is such a fascinating character whom I loved reading about. She was so different to many women of the time, who just knew their place in society and were happy to wait for the right man to come along and provide for them, but she knew she wanted more from life. She had a keen eye for art and shocked Benjamin West with her ability when he asked her to demonstrate the secrets from the manuscript. In these modern times, it was fascinating to read of the lengths that women were forced to, to make something of themselves and that often meant by any means necessary! And she was still treated like a second class citizen despite her obvious talent. She was a very tough cookie and very strong-willed and that came through clearly in how she thought she was being treated at times.

The story is set in such an interesting time in world history and that is reflected in this novel. The political issues facing many countries around the world, alongside the question of the monarchy and slavery were all touched on within this book, and that really made for an even more immersive read.

It often left me wondering how to feel sympathy for, with the amount of deception going on and really questioned all the characters and their motives! While the story revolves mainly around Benjamin West and the Provises, there are a number of other characters involved who often have an equal part to play in how the story pans out.

The level of research that must have been involved in the writing of this book must have been staggering, as the art of painting is brought to life in so much detail, and even though it isn’t an entirely faithful historical account, it still really captured the shock waves that the scandal created and how life must have been for those at the time.

Overall, I found this to be an engrossing, historical read and I look forward to reading more from this author in the future!

Thank you to the publishers for the advanced reading copy in return for a fair and honest review.