Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson

Pictures at an Exhibition In 1942 the National Gallery in London launched its ‘Picture of the Month’ scheme. Each month one of the masterpieces that had been hidden away to protect them from bombing raids during the war would be brought out of storage and put on display. Daisy Milton, who is working in London as a typist, decides to go along every month to look at the paintings in the hope that it will give her something to look forward to and help her get through the days until the war is over. After each visit to the gallery she writes a letter to her friend Elizabeth in Canada, describing the painting and how it made her feel.

In the present day we meet Claire and her husband, Rob. When Rob’s grandmother, Elizabeth, dies she leaves him a box containing the letters she received from Daisy throughout the war. A recent tragedy has almost destroyed Claire and Rob’s marriage and Claire finds some comfort in reading Daisy’s letters and going to look at the paintings once a month just as Daisy did. As the months go by and Claire finds herself drawn into Daisy’s world she starts to see some parallels between Daisy’s life in the past and her own life in the present.

I enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition, but although I was interested in both the wartime and modern day storylines I did prefer the wartime one because I found Daisy a much more appealing character than Claire. For a long time Claire annoyed me because she seemed so self-absorbed and unwilling to move on with her life. I had more sympathy for Rob, who came across as a kind, considerate husband who was doing his best to make their marriage work and starting to run out of patience. As Claire’s story unfolded I started to warm to her a bit more, but I would still rather have spent more time with Daisy.

My favourite thing about this novel was having the opportunity to learn about the paintings that were displayed in the National Gallery during the war. Each chapter of the book begins with a QR code that you can scan with your phone (if you have the right sort of phone) and it will take you directly to the painting, or you can look them up online yourself later if you prefer – they are all easy to find on the National Gallery website. Some were very famous paintings that I was already familiar with, such as The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and The Hay Wain by John Constable, but there were others I knew nothing about. It was a fascinating experience to view each of these paintings first through Daisy’s eyes and Claire’s, then to be able to look at them myself and see things in them that I might not have thought of otherwise.

Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy of this book.

18 thoughts on “Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson

  1. Jo says:

    Lovely review. I read this book last year, and I think we were very much on the same wavelength. Much preferring the wartime storyline which seemed richer in my opinion.

    I do look forward though to seeing what the author does next.

    • Helen says:

      I wished more time had been spent on the wartime story. I preferred the characters and it would have been nice to have heard from Elizabeth too.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Great review! I almost always feel this way about books that have a past and a present storyline; I think it must be difficult to combine the two and not have one time period that feels a little less engrossing. I love the idea of being able to look at the pictures along with the characters in this book.

  3. Charlie says:

    An interactive experience, then! It sounds wonderful. It’s so usual that we’ll prefer one plot line to the other, but it sounds like Macpherson has blended them in a particular way, with the viewing of the pictures. And I love that there’s a real drive to have the reader experience it for themselves, too!

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    I love the concept of this book with the paintings and letters, and of course the fact we can join by looking up the paintings too. I’m glad you enjoyed it Helen. I think I would like it too.

    • Helen says:

      I can see how stopping to look at the paintings could be distracting, but I thought it really enhanced the experience of reading the book.

  5. Lisa says:

    I will be keeping an eye out for this as well. I love the idea of the pictures being exhibited in the midst of so much destruction and tragedy. I also love novels about letters!

  6. Iris says:

    Eh, I just realised I have had a review request for this sitting in my inbox for a month. I remember reading it and thinking that I should reply and how lovely it sounded. But then I never did.. I guess it is a good thing I was reminded by your review, for now I’m definitely even more interested. I’ll be keeping this in mind for my next bookish order.

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