I live very close to the Suffolk birthplace of the artist Thomas Gainsborough, and I‘ve come to know his work well. A curiosity about his life ensued, and it turns out he was a larger-than-life character – likeable, sociable, irascible, opinionated, funny.
Ripe for a novel, I thought.
If you’re trying to make a narrative tale out of a real life, you first need to get to know that life as well as you can, and then isolate whichever series of episodes you think will work best as a self-contained story. Gainsborough’s life is littered with good yarns, but in my initial readings of his biography, I struggled to see what that novel-sized story might be.
Then I reminded myself that my previous two novels have been comedies. In my first, The Hopkins Conundrum, I did not seek comedy in the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins; rather, I wrapped the story of his life in a comic modern narrative. With Gainsborough’s life, by contrast, the comedy was staring me in the face: his long-running professional rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds, sometimes confected by the media, sometimes real, and their struggle 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. Gainsborough himself was no less fruitful a subject, telling anyone who would listen how much he hated painting the faces of toffs, but miraculously cheering up if the face had a crown on it.
A humorous approach seemed all the more fitting given that the events of A Right Royal Face-Off, which will be published in July 2019, take place in the Georgian era. This was the age of fops, dandies and courtesans, an anything-goes epoch of pre-Victorian decadence which was a heyday – think Swift, Fielding, Sterne, Thackeray and Austen – of comic or satirical literature.
The process of writing biographical fiction with an eye to comedy is no different to the straight-faced version: I’ve tried to be completely true to the characters and what we know of their lives. I really didn’t need to make anything up to find humour in the chaotic Gainsborough household. The only comic literary licence I have taken is to tell part of my story through the eyes of a servant, capturing the exuberance of life in Gainsborough’s Pall Mall townhouse in letters home to his mother in Suffolk. But all the episodes he relates are real.
Just as I mixed ancient and modern in The Hopkins Conundrum, here I have also spun a contemporary yarn about a long-lost, badly damaged and defaced painting that may or not be a Gainsborough.
It’s a way of showing that there are two Thomas Gainsboroughs: the flesh-and-blood man who died two hundred and thirty years ago, and the creator of artefacts which, at one stage in the early twentieth century, were the most coveted and highly priced works of art in the world.
But mainly, I hope, it’s entertaining.
A Right Royal Face-Off is published by Lightning Books in July 2019