Today I’m pleased to be on the blog tour for A Right Royal Face Off. My post is presented with thanks to Rachel Gilbey at Rachel’s Random Resources for inviting me on the blog tour and to Simon Edge for writing the guest post.
It is 1777, and England’s second-greatest portrait artist, Thomas Gainsborough, has a thriving practice a stone’s throw from London’s royal palaces. Meanwhile, the press talks up his rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds, the pedantic theoretician who is the top dog of British portraiture.
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?
Two and a half centuries later, a badly damaged painting turns up on a downmarket TV antiques 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.
Simon Edge explains why he chose the medium of comedy to write about the great English painter Thomas Gainsborough
It’s the age-old question that people always ask novelists: Where do you get your ideas? For me, the most useful starting-point is biography. I like reading biography, poking around in libraries and chasing up references. Doing those things with a specific purpose is even more fun. For me, taking a real life and working within its parameters to create engaging characters and an engrossing story is a stimulating challenge.
I knew before my first and second novels were published that I wanted to make Thomas Gainsborough the subject of my third one. For the past fifteen years I’ve had a strong connection with the area of Suffolk where Gainsborough was born, first as a part-time resident and now as a permanent one. Putting our historical celebrity at the centre of a novel seemed the natural thing to do.
I started reading up and found that the painter’s life was littered with good yarns: there was an upwardly mobile marriage to the illegitimate daughter of a duke; a disturbed daughter of his own, probably suffering from hereditary syphilis; angry confrontations with sitters and the Royal Academy; and even – although this only came to light once my novel was nearly finished – a gory murder in the family.
What I couldn’t see, however, was a story that I could hew into a novel-sized shape. The only other person who has tried to fictionalise Gainsborough, as far as I know, was the high-society photographer Cecil Beaton. He wrote a play in the Fifties called Gainsborough’s Girls, but he played fast and loose with the facts – making the painter poverty-stricken, Van Gogh-style, when Gainsborough was in reality pretty rich, and killing off the wife who actually outlived him – in order to create a tragic narrative arc that wasn’t really there. I didn’t want to do that. I don’t mean this as a personal slight to the late Sir Cecil, because it’s common practice in Hollywood biopics too: but to my mind, not being true to the subject’s life is lazy, disrespectful and ultimately a bit pointless.
It took a friend who also knows his stuff about Gainsborough to point out that it had to be a comedy.
In my first novel, The Hopkins Conundrum, I did not seek comedy in the biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins; rather, I lightened the gloom of the poet’s difficult, frustrated life by wrapping it in a comic modern narrative.
But with Gainsborough, as my friend persuasively argued, the comedy was staring me in the face, in the shape of the artist’s long-running professional rivalry with Reynolds, sometimes confected by the media, sometimes real, and the two men’s contest for the affections of the Royal Family.
The po-faced Reynolds was inherently comic, with his ear trumpet and his earnest lectures on precisely how paintings should be made, even though he was notoriously incompetent when it came to mixing his own paints. Gainsborough himself was no less fruitful a subject, telling anyone who would listen how much he hated painting the faces of toffs, yet cheering up miraculously if the face had a crown on it.
Playing it for laughs seemed all the more fitting given the era in which these men lived. This was the age of fops, dandies and courtesans, an anything-goes epoch of pre-Victorian decadence which was a heyday of comic or satirical literature – think Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, William Makepeace Thackeray and, of course, Jane Austen.
The process of writing biographical fiction with an eye to comedy is no different to the straight-faced version: it involves a lot of research. I have tried to be no less true to the characters and what we know of their lives than I would have been in a serious novel. I have changed a couple of minor details for chronological convenience, which only the most hardcore scholars will notice, but otherwise I have been faithful to the available sources, and used creative imagination in the gaps.
Whether or not it’s funny is for others to judge, not me. What I can say with some confidence is that A Right Royal Face-Off is truer in spirit to Gainsborough’s approach to life than any attempt to adapt his biography to a more clichéd tragic narrative.
A Right Royal Face Off is available from Amazon.
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