Previous centuries, in my head at least, have very distinct identities. The 13th Century is bloody and muddy, the 16th Century is a rip-roaring adventure in all sorts of ways, and the 19th Century is earnestly tedious and a bit worthy. The ‘long’ 18th Century feels like the witty, clever century, and it is in this period that Simon Edge’s A Right Royal Face-Off is rooted. There’s something about the burgeoning sense of celebrity which provides rich territory for drawing a comparison with our desire for fame and exposure today. Edge splices together events concerning the artist Thomas Gainsborough in 18th Century London, painting public figures who are, as his servant puts it, of ‘quality’ for a variety of reasons, ‘…if a particular lady is the talk of London for her strumpet ways, that same London wants to see her face in the Academy exhibition’, with the rather tawdry production methods used to put a TV antique show together two and a half centuries later. ‘Britain’s Got Treasures’ (I loved the title) has all the stock elements of humdrum daytime-TV-fodder and hangs on low-key competition between its ‘experts’ and the chance to humiliate members of the public who believe they have been hoarding something of value. When Suffolk local Muriel Mudge turns up with a badly-defaced painting, she is a perfect candidate for the latter segment.
Life in the Gainsborough household is captured in a series of letters a young servant, David, sends back to his family, and there’s also a good deal of fascinating detail about the painter’s methods and practices. Edge’s Gainsborough is a likeable rogue, an ambitious painter locked in a professional tussle with Joshua Reynolds, and a father who worries about his grownup daughters. His wife is desperate for their status as a family to be improved, but Gainsborough has always had an uneasy relationship with the Royal Academy. Edge has rendered this historical figure wholly human in his professional pride, his personal relationships, and in his outbursts of humour and frustration. All the characters, from George III to Kaz Kareem, ‘a midway evictee from one of the last seasons of Big Brother’, are superbly realised.
There are elements of this novel which remind me strongly of my favourite play, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. As with Stoppard’s humorous idea of what Byron might have been up to in 1809, Edge’s conjectures about the relationship between Gainsborough and Reynolds provides him with the opportunity to play out the consequences of the earlier narrative to amusing effect in the later century. It’s an excellent novel – one I was always hurrying to get back to – and I recommend it highly!
My thanks to Rachel @rararesouces for my review copy.
Blurb: 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
Amazon US – https://www.amazon.com/Right-Royal-Face-Off-Entertainment-Gainsborough-ebook/dp/B07SZ1GXT4
Amazon UK – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Right-Royal-Face-Off-Entertainment-Gainsborough-ebook/dp/B07SZ1GXT4
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 http://www.simon-edge.com.
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