A Right Royal Face-Off by Simon Edge is essentially an observation of the, well, if not feud, then the active bitter rivalry between England’s second greatest portrait painter, Suffolk’s Thomas Gainsborough, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, the President of the Royal Academy. This rivalry seemed to really take shape when each of them was, seemingly in turn, commissioned by the royal family.
The way in which the eighteenth century is rendered in this novel is witty, observant and joyously gossipy. It is also very immersive historically.
Each chapter focuses on its own character, with the pattern repeating every three chapters. In the first of each triad, we are with Gainsborough within his household in Pall Mall, with his family or at his easel in front of his sitter. The characterisations are sharp and Simon Edge has the painter’s eye for detail. It is paced beautifully and nothing is wasted.
The second chapters pick up the slack: letters sent from David, a young footman in the Gainsborough household, to his mother at their Suffolk family home. These letters lend dimension, balance and further elucidation to the previous narrative. They are witty and charming in an uncontrived way. Their misspellings lend to their candour: “Mr Bark, my Masters friend of Musick.” These initial two aspects of the same narrative are painted with such historical efficacy, such faultless, efficient strokes as to ring so true.
Then to the third chapters. A portrait of a gentleman furnished with donkey’s ears is taken to a TV recording of Britain’s Got Treasures in Suffolk by the elderly Miss Mudge. She is put off as to its provenance by expert Kaz “But whaddo I know? I’m just a fat poof from Essex” Kareem, previously of Big Brother fame. From easy, fine stroke to broad strokes indeed. These chapters are liberally strewn with disposable contemporary references – X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent to cite a couple. I therefore found it quite coy when Antiques on the Road is used to refer to Antiques Road Show.
I appreciate that this somewhat jarring contemporary narrative is a pivotal plot point. And to be fair, the narrative does as a whole manage to rally itself as it progresses, to engage with its parts and become more cohesive towards its conclusion.
Amanda Aldridge 4/4
A Right Royal Face-Off by Simon Edge
Lightning Books 9781785631306 pbk Jul 2019