The Painter’s Apprentice is the follow up to Charlotte Betts‘ successful novel “The Apothecary’s Daughter. The setting is Merryfields Sanctuary for melancholic souls, a family home on the outskirts of London in the late 1600s, where Beth Ambrose has grown up, sheltered from the turbulence of city life. Her family care for a number of people who are treated as guests, but who could not for one reason or another make lives for themselves outside their walls.
Johannes the Dutch painter is one such who has made his home at Merryfields. Taking Beth under his paint-splattered wing, she learns patience and delicacy under his tutelage and becomes a fine artist, specialising in botanical works. When her cousin Noah comes from Virginia to visit London, and take his own place as apprentice to celebrated architect Christopher Wren, she feels the first stirrings of a desire to see the world outside her family manor. Noah is instrumental in getting Beth the patronage of the Bishop of London, who is a famous collector of botanic specimens and needs a painter to capture them.
At the same time, unrest is striking at the heart of England as King James starts a series of moves that will lead to the Glorious Revolution. While life at Merryfields seems remote from these events, when a strange cloaked female figure is given into their care, Beth soon uncovers a movement to unseat King James and restore Protestant rule through his daughter, Mary and her husband, William of Orange, with her patron at its centre.
While fictional, this novel is set in and around real historical events. There is also an obvious passion for detail of the period in Charlotte Betts’ writing. The intricacies of the Dutch painting style during the period gets particular attention which is no doubt correct, and there is also great detail in the agricultural practices of England and the new colonies in Virginia. This was a fascinating period for the common man with the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, the success of the American colonies and also the excitement and turbulence of the court drama between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Beth’s unique position in her household, her work as a painter, and her connections to the Royal family through her patron all contribute to her being in the right place at the right time to make history. As the author points out, there is no historical evidence for Beth and her family to have been involved in the struggles, but there is no reason for her not to be there, either, and that is what makes this story so fascinating.
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