Jacket Notes: Barbara Mutch

01 November 2021 - 18:17
By Barbara Mutch
The Fire Portrait, set in the Karoo, is Barbara Mutch's third novel.
Image: Supplied The Fire Portrait, set in the Karoo, is Barbara Mutch's third novel.

The inspiration for The Fire Portrait came from geography and from art — and from thwarted love. First, the geography. I’ve always been drawn to the Karoo, that seemingly unforgiving semi-desert that stretches across the interior of the country. It’s the place where my Irish grandparents settled over a century ago, and was the background for my first novel, The Housemaid’s Daughter. After a foray to the sea in my second novel, The Girl from Simon’s Bay, I’ve returned to the Karoo for this new novel set in the early to mid-1900s. At first, the severity of the landscape leaves my heroine, Frances, dismayed — until she begins to paint spiny aloes and cryptic stone plants, and finds beauty amid the starkness... and a fresh audience for her artwork.

While Frances is a gifted painter, I am not. So the greatest challenge for me in writing this book was to get to grips with the creation of art, specifically botanical illustration and watercolour painting, and the commercial value of work produced in the mid-20th century. On the practical side, I was lucky to receive some tutoring from a professional, who patiently introduced me to the myriad qualities of watercolours — and of charcoal, which turns out to play a key part in the book. While my efforts could not be described as memorable or commercially valuable, I loved learning what skills would be needed to do so.    

The Fire Portrait by Barbara Mutch
Image: Supplied The Fire Portrait by Barbara Mutch

The Fire Portrait’s story is set against a backdrop of significant 20th-century historical events: the Great War followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, the steady march towards World War 2, the rise of racial discrimination in SA and its tragic consequences. Frances lived through this time, and she paints what she sees. 

And the thwarted love? It’s not Frances’s fault: she’s beautiful and bright and talented and surely a “catch”, but sometimes potential spouses are looking to make a favourable financial match rather than an emotional one. It may sound callous to our modern ears that love cannot overcome a shortage of money, but that was the reality in Frances’s day, and sometimes still in ours. But Frances may yet have the last laugh...

The Fire Portrait by Barbara Mutch is published by Allison & Busby, R320