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The Painter's Daughters by Emily Howes

The Painter's Daughters by Emily Howes

What the judges said

‘It's beautifully written, and I raced through it. Research is filtered through contemporary consciousness, and deployed with skill. It's a polished performance’ Hilary Mantel, novelist

‘I really loved the depiction of the close relationship between the two little girls who look out for each other – it's something I can't recall reading before’ Jo Unwin, literary agent

‘It's both interesting and compelling thematically, and really strong on a sentence-by-sentence level. You can tell she's been working on it for a while’ Marianne Tatepo, commissioning editor

Extract from The Painter's Daughters

First the canvas. 

Not one, but many. Great oblongs carried in and carried out, wrapped carefully in shrouds. Like bodies, we always thought as we watched them from the window. Like great stiff bodies, short, tall, thin and wide, one for each of them as they came in their carriages and swept away again. And underneath the shroud, stripped back in privacy, the sheer blank expanse of it, the bareness of it, like naked skin. 

The tools in his studio are meticulously arranged, like instruments in an orchestra; easel, palette, smudge pan, straining frame, primed cloth, maulstick, pencils as tiny as a pin or as fat as a finger, Dutch-quills and swan-quills, jewelling pencils and bristle pencils; a brush for every fleck in your eye, to smooth every coarse hair. Devices to conjure life. And then to soften it back into perfection.  

It is Saturday afternoon. Late August, the air hot and still in the shuttered house. And my father is beginning something, beginning someone. 

The door of the studio is ajar. All is quiet. We loiter, Molly and I, hoping to be seen.

He is standing with his back to us, his fingers rubbing his cheek where the afternoon bristles are beginning to grow. The canvas in front of him, waiting. In one hand he is holding something small and white, and he dips it into a shallow bowl, and raises it, dripping. 

A muffled giggle, a creaking floorboard. He half turns. 

‘Now, who might that be?’

We try for silence, but Molly accidentally steps on my foot. 

‘Reveal yourselves this moment or be tipped into the paste water,’ he says.

He knows it is us. 

‘Hello,’ I say. My voice is too loud in the afternoon silence. 

He turns, then, and sees us in the doorway and stretches out his hand. He looks hot and weary.

‘Come in then, you vagabonds, and let me see you for a moment before I work.’ 

And then he adds, as we push the door too energetically and it bangs against the wall, ‘But I have a dreadful head on me, so absolutely no singing, dancing, shrieking, disagreeing, and most particularly, no dangling from my neck’. 

Molly is fond of dangling from his neck although she is older than me, and heavier.  

‘What are you doing?’ I ask him. 

‘He is washing the canvas,’ Molly says. ‘I’ve seen him before.’

‘Not washing it, Moll, but getting it ready. Come here and I will show you.’

The studio smells of paint and soap and stale beer and some other smell I do not know, but that rests on my father’s hands and hair and on the sleeves of his jacket when he puts his arm around you. 

‘Now then,’ he says, ‘The Captain first, as she is the smallest. Hold out your hand, Peg.’

I stretch out my upturned palm, and into it he puts a stone, rough and white like bone. And then carefully he wraps his own large hand around it, guiding, dipping the pumice down into the bowl of water, and bringing it out. Together we move over it the canvas, smoothing, working away at the knots and bumps. His hand is red and lined, a working hand, and my hand is a shell inside it.

‘That’s it, my Captain,’ he says. ‘Gently now.’

My palm, wet from the bowl, is small, and the stone is almost the size of it. Together we dip it again, and there is no sound but our breathing and the water sloshing gently in the bowl, and then the rasp of the stone against the skin of the canvas. 

Molly hangs beside me, watching.

‘When is it my turn?’ she says. ‘When is my turn? Is it my turn now?’

‘Wait a moment, my Molly.’

‘It isn’t your turn, Moll,’ I say. ‘It’s still mine.’

Water trickles down my arm, tracking its way towards the sleeve of my dress, and I want to stop it tickling but I do not want it ever to stop being my turn. 


How I did it


The idea came from a Gainsborough exhibition at the National

 Gallery; I read that his daughters were in love with the same man and that one had a serious mental illness. I wondered whether I could build a novel around that story.

My grandmother had post-natal depression after my mother was born, and was in an asylum for 25 years. I feel there are many untold stories about women’s mental illness.

I’d already been writing for years, first collaboratively for theatre – though I was mainly a director. Then when my daughters were little, and I couldn’t work in theatre any more, I tried to write some short stories. But I was going through a divorce at the time, and couldn’t find the space. It wasn’t until I had moved house as a single mother that the words started to come.

I sent a story out and had no luck at all, but I kept sending it out and suddenly several editors accepted it. So I sent out another story, and some flash fiction. And I started to get some success, which increased my confidence, until I though maybe I could try writing a novel.

I read a lot about Gainsborough’s life – biographies and online. The story in the novel is based on fact, but also on my own theory about what happened to the two girls.

By then I had started a four-year MA in Existential Psychotherapy and I knew that if I didn’t commit to the novel before I started seeing patients, I probably never would. So I signed up for a three-month course at Curtis Brown Creative, which gave me the impetus to work on the book. I’m still in touch with the people I was on the course with – but it’s so hard to keep going with a novel. By the time I entered the competition, I’d lost faith in the book really. Getting longlisted gave me the push I needed to finish it.'

EMILY HOWES was a theatre director for many years, but now works as a bereavement counsellor as part of her training to be a psychotherapist. Her short fiction has been published in Mslexia, the Bridport Prize, and elsewhere.

The Painter's Daughter will be published in February 2024 by Phoenix Orion in the UK and Simon and Schuster in the US.



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