Thunderclap: A memoir of art and life & sudden death

Laura Cumming

A kaleidoscopic memoir of a life in art, a father and daughter, and what a shared love of a painting can come to mean.

On the morning of 12 October 1654, a gunpowder explosion devastated the Dutch city of Delft. The thunderclap was heard over seventy miles away. Among the fatalities was the painter Carel Fabritius, dead at thirty-two, leaving only his haunting masterpiece The Goldfinch and barely a dozen known paintings. The explosion that killed him also buried his reputation, along with answers to the mysteries of his life and career.

What happened to Fabritius before and after this disaster is just one of the discoveries in a book that explores the relationship between art and life, interweaving the lives of Laura Cumming, her Scottish painter father, who also died too young, and the great artists of the Dutch Golden Age.


“The idea that a whole academy of writers should read each others’ work and then choose winners from among themselves is truly extraordinary. To be judged by your own peers, and by so many of them, is an honour in its own right and so the Prize carries a significance beyond all others. I feel privileged to be shortlisted, and elated to win in my category.”

Laura Cumming has been the art critic of the Observer since 1999. Born in Scotland, educated at Oxford, she now lives in London with her husband and twin daughters. She is the author of The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez and On Chapel Sands: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child; both books were shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize.


At what age did you know you wanted to become a writer?

At 22, daydreaming during my first and worst job.


What was your favourite childhood book?

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam & Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr.


Which is your favourite book of recent years?

Annie Ernaux, Maria Stepanova and Zbigniew Herbert come straight to mind, plus Richard Ford’s Between Them and Peter Davidson’s The Idea of North.


What three books would you take to your Desert Island?

Shakespeare, Milton, S J Perelman, all of the illustrated art writing in my house.


What is your ‘if you don’t like this, you can’t be my friend’ book?

I cannot imagine that argument.


Who or what have been your most important influences?

My parents, always.


Which of the other shortlisted titles are you most excited to read?

All of the poetry.


If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Carpenter or teacher.



Laura Cumming