In the past year or so, 17th-century Dutch culture has had a serious makeover courtesy of Anna Pavord, with her bestselling history of the tulip, and Deborah Moggach's latest novel (soon to be a film).
The trend started with Simon Schama's brilliant work of history, An Embarrassment of Riches, in which he identified an anxiety about wealth and materialism behind the displays of conspicuous consumption in the work of artists of that time. Moggach takes this thesis as her central conceit and fashions a thrilling love story from its elements.
It is 1636, and Amsterdam is thriving. Cornelis Sandvoort, prominent citizen and man of substance, is also "a collector of beautiful things". These include paintings, flowers and a young wife from an impoverished family. The elderly Cornelis longs for an heir, otherwise what is the point of garnering all these riches? But, so far, Sophia has not held to her part of the bargain. His future posterity weighs on him, so he commissions Jan van Loos, a fashionable young artist to paint the happy couple's portrait. They are surrounded by Cornelis's favourite belongings, but Jan has eyes only for Sophia. Moggach cunningly interweaves her own theories of art into the ensuing tale of sexual betrayal and financial intrigue. The greater deception, for her, is that of the artist who to all intents and purposes communicates the immutability of his subject but, at the same time, allows a tulip, which is about to lose its glistening petals, into the frame. …