Royal scandal, an argument between artists, a servant with an eye for detail, and a modern television programme’s discovery of a unique mutilated portrait. Frank, funny and sometimes disrespectful of the great artists, this is an amusing book full of very human concerns and comedy. Edge has recreated some characters; Thomas Gainsborough, the apparently deaf and less than brilliant Joshua Reynolds, an assortment of royalty and other historical characters , and created some modern characters who find themselves in a very modern dilemma. Art, portraits and rivalry are mixed with some obvious comedy as an artist tries to reconcile his painting with raising enough money for his challenging family, while maintaining his position as a superior artist. In the twentieth first century a second rate antiques programme’s researcher makes a discovery in deepest East Anglia which attracts attention for all the wrong reasons. With various accounts, including Thomas’ hapless progress, a servant who writes wide eyed accounts of life in an artistic household and the story of Gemma, who is trying to do the right thing in the twenty first century, this is a story to make the reader laugh at absurd situations, wince at the human problems presented, and accidentally learn a lot about eighteenth century painting. An unusual book, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel of mixed fact and fiction, combined to great effect.
The book opens in the studio of Thomas Gainsborough attempting to paint a Duchess, who has courted scandal and is now officially the spouse of the Duke of Cumberland, whose minute investigation of the studio is causing problems. The veneer of royalty is wearing very thin as the Duke comments unfavourably on his brothers, another duke and the King himself. Not that he is any more polite about the abilities of the President of the Royal Academy, as it is generally known that he is technically deficient as a painter if politically more able. Thomas’ new footman, David, too terrified to go out after hearing dire warnings of the London Press gangs, writes an account of the household to his mother, as he will later tell of Thomas’ visit to the Academy and other notable places in London. In our own time, Gemma is working on a new television show that plays on the hopes of members of the public that they own real treasures, while really the Producers are hoping for spectacular junk. When a local woman brings in a family heirloom, Gemma is set on the trail of a painting that shocks and intrigues, but also represents televisual gold for the unprincipled powers that be. As Thomas struggles with a family with pretensions, David struggles with piglets, and Gemma struggles with East Anglian complications, this small book contains a multitude of well realised comic possibilities.
This unusual book will appeal to anyone who has spent time wondering at the stories behind television’s obsession with people’s antiques. It also gently imparts its thorough research into the artists of the eighteenth century and the commissions to paint an often dissolute royal family. With sheer comedy and a lot of ambition, this short novel combines excellent writing, seemingly effortless historical research and a great understanding of people to create a really enjoyable read.