On behalf of Simon Edge and Rachel over at Rachel’s Random Resources I am honoured to be hosting a guest post today discussing why this novel coincides with the revival in the profile of Gainsborough.
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It is 1777, and England’s second-greatest portrait artist, Thomas Gainsborough, has a thriving practice a stone’s thrown from London’s royal palaces, while the press talks up his rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds, the pedantic theoretician who is the top dog of British portraiture.
Fonder of the low life than high society, Gainsborough loathes pandering to grand sitters, but he changes his tune when he is commissioned to paint King George III and his large family. In their final, most bitter competition, who will be chosen as court painter, Tom or Sir Joshua?
Meanwhile, two and a half centuries later, a badly damaged painting turns up on a downmarket antiques TV show being filmed in Suffolk. Could the monstrosity really be, as its eccentric owner claims, a Gainsborough? If so, who is the sitter? And why does he have donkey’s ears?
Mixing ancient and modern as he did in his acclaimed debut The Hopkins Conundrum, Simon Edge takes aim at fakery and pretension in this highly original celebration of one of our greatest artists.
Readers can order the book from the Lightning Books website at 50% off (with free UK p&p) if you enter this code at checkout – BLOGTOURFACE
Guest Post from Simon Edge
Simon Edge explains how his comic novel about Thomas Gainsborough has coincided with a revival in the profile of this great British painter
For those of us who live in the Stour valley, on the border between Suffolk and Essex, Thomas Gainsborough is a very familiar figure. In Sudbury, where he was born in 1727, he has given his name to a secondary school and a silk mill with a Royal Warrant, as well as to the street where he grew up – now home to the Gainsborough’s House gallery – and even to the branch railway line that connects the town to the Greater Anglia network. On Market Hill, his statue gazes down on the canvas roofs of the fruit-and-veg stalls that draw shoppers from all around on Thursdays and Saturdays.
I started coming here for visits nearly twenty years ago. Little by little, the area became my home, first on a part-time basis, while I was still working in London, and now permanently. Fairly early on, I decided that the experience of living in Gainsborough Country would be more rewarding if I developed a deeper interest in the painter’s work.
As an art-lover, I already had an affection for his work. I had played that game where first you stand a decent distance away from one of his portraits so that the sitter’s silk dress or frock coat looks intricately detailed, and then you slowly step forward until the buttons and embroidery dissolve into wild, indisciplined splashes, and you wonder how he ever got away with it. It’s even more fun in reverse, when you stand up close to the splashes and then move slowly back until they magically coalesce into a perfect garment.
I did not know much about Gainsborough’s life, though, so I started looking for biographies. At the time, the most recent one was written in the Seventies, and it was pretty hard-going. I realised that Gainsborough had been neglected by writers and film-makers, in a way that his near-contemporaries John Constable and JMW Turner have not been. At the start of the 20th century, his paintings commanded the highest prices in the world, as Van Gogh’s do nowadays.He has long since fallen from that perch and, outside the Stour valley, he was beginning to seem neglected.
The more I read, including older biographies, as well as Gainsborough’s own letters, I saw that he was a larger-than-life character – likeable, sociable, irascible, opinionated, funny – whose full-throated approach to the world contrasted dramatically with the rule-bound stodginess of his principal rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds. That was surely a good subject for a novel.
I spent about three years reading up before putting pen to paper (literally so: I tend to write longhand) and Gainsborough’s profile has risen along the way. A much more accessible new biography appeared, serialised on BBC Radio 4. The Heritage Lottery Fund gave a major grant to a shiny new extension to Gainsborough’s House, and the National Portrait Gallery staged a hugely successful exhibition devoted to Gainsborough’s portraits of his own family. In April, we were treated to the revival of a long-lost play about Gainsborough by Cecil Beaton, the photographer and costume designer.
In that work, whose only previous performance was during the Festival of Britain in 1951, Beaton played fast and loose with the facts. Having decided he wanted to write a tragic story, he portrayed Gainsborough as a starving idealist, sending his long-suffering wife to an early grave, while his elder daughter was deflowered by a roistering aristocrat. That’s all complete nonsense. At the time Beaton is writing about, Gainsborough had a houseful of servants and kept his own carriage (the 18th-century equivalent of a Maserati, or perhaps even a helicopter). The painter’s wife outlived him by a decade, and the amorous aristocrat was a figment of Beaton’s imagination.
My own approach has been very different. I see Gainsborough not as a tragic figure, but as a comic one: eminently teasable, with his all-too-obvious foibles.
My novel A Right Royal Face-Off is set at two different times: there’s one strand in the 18th century, towards the end of Gainsborough’s career, and another set in the present-day. This is the kind of structure that served me well with my debut novel, The Hopkins Conundrum, where I mixed the life of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins with a modern tale satirising the Da Vinci Code industry. With Gainsborough, it has been a way of acknowledging his posthumous legacy while also immersing the reader in the minutiae of his life.
I shifted one minor event forward, and another backward, in a way that only a handful of specialist art historians will notice, but otherwise I have stuck to the facts as we understand them and woven my story around them. I want my novel to make readers laugh, but I hope they will also learn something along the way. Seeking to entertain is not a licence to misinform.
Fortunately, Sir Cecil and I are not in competition. He wrote his play nearly seventy years ago, he has been dead for nearly forty and, in any case, there is room for more than one approach. For me, it’s a cause for celebration that this great English painter is fashionable again. If my novel helps that process along, I will be delighted.
A Right Royal Face-Off is out now from Lightning Books, price £8.99
Author Bio – Simon Edge
Simon Edge was born in Chester and read philosophy at Cambridge University.
He was editor of the pioneering London paper Capital Gay before becoming a gossip columnist on the Evening Standard and then a feature writer on the Daily Express, where he was also a theatre critic for many years.
He has an MA in Creative Writing from City University, London. His first novel, The Hopkins Conundrum, was longlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award. He lives in Suffolk.
Read more about Simon and his work at www.simon-edge.com.
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