The Words and Pictures Book Club: “Still Life” by Sarah Winman


Well, should Sarah Winman ever read this, then our Words & Pictures book club meeting today gloried in the brilliance of “Still Life” from the characters to the story-telling, the history of Florence to the interweaving of art and art’s histories.

paperback, published by HarperCollins

1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening. Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view. Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades. Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.


For anyone who hasn’t yet read it, “Still Life” is full of humanity: real, tangible, positive, hope-giving humanity. It’s a novel that, personally, I have promised myself I shall never be without: a touchstone as it were for when the world seems to be on fire and there is nothing one can do about it.

It is also jam-packed with ideas and, I do recommend the article for Vanity Fair [click here] in which the author reviews the influences & inspirations behind the writing of the novel and there is also a lovely interview piece in The Florentine [here].

One fabulous ‘introduction’ offered by the novel to the reader is to the still relatively unknown nun-artist Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588) about whom Caroline Moorhead wrote in The Guardian [article] with regard to the restoration of Nelli’s extraordinary painting of The Last Supper; including an image:

Detail from the Last Supper by Plautilla Nelli, showing apostles, possibly Thomas and Peter. Photograph: Rabatti & Domingie.

The colours are enough to take one’s breath away, let alone anything else and, c/o the Museum of Santa Maria Novella magazine, there is a video revealing Nelli’s painting in all its glory [here].

Responding to the question: What do you hope readers will discover in Still Life? as part of an interview with Booktopia [here], Sarah Winman suggested:

“Laughter. Joy. A moment of lightness and belief in the world again after the ravages of the last year [the Covid pandemic] and the constant grip of right-wing politics. I like to think that my book is a re-charging of the batteries!”

and, wow, did she achieve that – and much more – for the Words & Pictures book club readers.


The Words & Pictures Book Group meets monthly over coffee and cake to discuss books – either fiction or non-fiction – that draw on art, painting and the lives of artists. Please follow here on WordPress or @TheCommonViewer on Twitter for updates.


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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