Book Review: A Right Royal Face-Off

 

“A man wants his own face on the wall, not to remind himself how he looks – a looking-glass would serve just as well for that – but to tell the world that he is the kind of man who has his face painted, and his wife’s face, and his children’s. Once they are on the wall, he can rest in the knowledge that he is that sort of fellow, and the world knows it, and the world will also remember him and his wife and his children when their physical bodies are long departed.”

A Right Royal Face-Off, by Simon Edge, tells the story of an artistic feud between Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Both artists made their living painting portraits commissioned by those who could afford such vanities in the eighteenth century. Thus, despite humble origins, they mixed with the aristocracy. Viewed through the eyes of Gainsborough’s footman – a young man working in a household receiving esteemed visitors but employing few servants – the story offers a social history laced with humour.

Interspersed with the the goings on in Georgian times is a contemporary tale. A television production company is creating a series for daytime viewers’ consumption. Britain’s Got Treasures invites members of the public to bring their valuables for experts to assess. Budget constraints have affected both the quality of the presenters and the experts. When an elderly lady brings a grotesque and vandalised painting, claiming it is a Gainsborough, she is roundly mocked on camera.  Taking umbrage at her treatment she marches off set but not before someone with a little more knowledge starts to question if she could be correct.

The stories told are of ambition and pretentiousness. The behaviour of celebrities and their coteries across both timelines is gently mocked along with members of the public who are complicit in their willingness to offer the requisite attention. The role of a partisan media in whipping up interest is shown to be no modern invention.

In Gainsborough’s day members of the public would pay to view portraits and other paintings at The Royal Academy – a sort of celebrity magazine of its time. Unlike today such art was not regarded as a highbrow pursuit and the faces of actresses and mistresses were of as much interest as royalty. Artists submitted their best work for display to maintain their standing and thereby draw in further clientele. The annual exhibitions were critiqued in the newspapers, providing valuable publicity. Linked to these were stories of the sitters – the gossip and intrigues lapped up by all and sundry.

At one time in more recent history Gainsboroughs were the most highly valued paintings in the world. Nowadays they are not so sought after – the market has moved on. It is this fickle nature of value – people as well as things – that is expertly lampooned throughout the tale. Cultural snobbery and its capriciousness along with the fixation of the masses on anyone deemed famous is, it seems, ageless.

The writing is engaging once the first few chapters have established the structure employed to progress each thread. Alternating chapters offer in turn: a scene from Gainsborough’s home life; the latest letter from Gainsborough’s footman to the young man’s mother; an episode from the making of the TV series. I particularly enjoyed the footman’s droll letters as these provide a window into the life of ordinary people living outside of London in Georgian times as well as unadorned commentary on the private and public behaviour of Gainsborough and his contemporaries. The TV series thread illustrates how little has changed. It is refreshing that the artistic elements of the story may be appreciated without either obsequiousness or expertise.

An entertaining social history replete with candid observations and witticisms. A reminder of the commerce required if artists are expected to continue to create. A deft and exuberant satire that is pointed whilst avoiding cruelty – enjoyable and well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

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