A Right Royal Face-Off

It is 1777, and England’s second-greatest portrait artist, Thomas Gainsborough, has a thriving practice a stone’s thrown from London’s royal palaces, while the press talks up his rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds, the pedantic theoretician who is the top dog of British portraiture.

Fonder of the low life than high society, 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?
Meanwhile, two and a half centuries later, a badly damaged painting turns up on a downmarket antiques TV 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.
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Gemma is the producer’s assistant on a new daytime TV programme where members of the public bring in antiques to be assessed by experts. This is an established format, but the twist for this new series is a competitive element, and it’s also more cruel, with the producers on the hunt for ghastly objects to ridicule. Gemma finds something that will fit that bill perfectly while filming in the Suffolk market town which happens to be the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough.

Gemma was already on her feet when the church door opened and the tiny, stick-thin figure of an elderly woman appeared. Her hair was dyed jet-black and cut into a girlish bob, but her face was deeply lined and she was bent arthritically; she looked as if she was pushing eighty. She peered up out of her hunch as she entered the church, glaring around her.
Is this Antiques on the Road?’ she demanded. Her voice was unexpectedly high and girlish.
Not quite,’ said Gemma, putting on her most indomitable smile. ‘We’re Britain’s Got Treasures. Almost the same, but a different channel. Have you brought something lovely for us to see?’
She nodded her head encouragingly towards the large carrier bag the old woman was clutching. Inside it, she could see a bulky rectangular object parcelled in newspaper. A mirror, perhaps, but more likely a picture.
It’s for the experts,’ said the woman, clutching the bag to her chest.
I know, but I’ll need to see it first, and then I can point you in the right direction.’ Gemma increased the wattage of her smile. The punters were not usually this truculent. ‘Can I start by taking your name?’
The old woman looked her up and down suspiciously.
It’s Mudge,’ she said, with evident reluctance. ‘Muriel Mudge.’
Right then, Mrs Mudge. If I could just have a look…’
It’s Miss.’
In London, Gemma would never dream of making that kind of assumption. She was embarrassed to have been caught out.
Right then, Miss Mudge. I’m just going to need you to pop your address on this form and sign here, which gives us your permission to use any film we take.’
Well, it’s a requirement, I’m afraid. Everyone else taking part has signed one. It just gives us your consent to broadcast the footage.’
Miss Mudge scowled for a moment, considering her options, then carefully placed her precious cargo on the floor at her feet, pulled a pair of reading glasses out of a grubby tote bag slung over her shoulder, and proceeded laboriously to print her address and sign her name.
That’s lovely. Thank you so much. And if I could just have a quick look at the treasure you’ve brought today…?’
Miss Mudge glared at her. Then, with a sigh of acquiescence, she lifted the carrier bag, deposited it on Gemma’s table, and removed the paper parcel from its outer wrapping. As she took away the newspaper layers, one side of a heavy, wooden picture frame emerged. She seemed to be deliberately making sure the picture faced away from Gemma, as if building for a big reveal. As the full frame now came free of the paper, all Gemma could see was the back, which was covered with brown paper, darkened and blotched with age, and what seemed to be a framer’s label in the bottom right-hand corner. Gemma leaned forward to get a clearer look at the label, but before she could read it, Miss Mudge flipped the frame around.
There,’ she said.
Gemma’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open.
What she was looking at had once been the head-and-shoulders portrait of a man in late middle age, in period dress. The brushwork was loose and hasty, so it was hard to make out the detail of the clothing, but it looked like a blue velvet coat, with some kind of lacy cravat at the neck. The face was round, with a cleft chin, broad, almost bee-stung lips and a wide nose, and the hair was grey and curled. It was a thoroughly believable portrait – or it would have been, if it had not been grotesquely defaced. The head was surmounted with a pair of hairy animal ears: slightly pointed, dark on the outside, lighter and fluffier on the inside, like furry pouches. They were like the kind of instant bunny ears or devil’s horns for a hen-night posse or a Hallowe’en costume, only this was some kind of eighteenth-century version, where the sitter had been made to look like…what? A horse?
The vandalism was vicious, clearly designed to ruin the portrait, but it was also skilful, and now Gemma realised what it called to mind. In a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she had been given the part of the fairy Peaseblossom, commanded by Queen Titania to wait on Bottom, who was played by a fat boy with a knack for comedy called Marius. These were just like the asses’ ears that Puck magicked onto Bottom’s head to humiliate him.
What made the picture all the more grotesque was that it seemed to have been cut into four quarters and then repaired with black thread. The stitches crossed at the sitter’s nose, leaving unblemished the two ears in the upper quadrants.
It’s… It’s…’
Valuable?’ said Muriel. ‘I should say so. It’s been in my family for a long time and we don’t let many folk see it.’
Has it really?’ said Gemma. ‘It’s clearly very…unusual.’ She knew already what she must do. ‘Miss Mudge, would you excuse me just a second?’
Turning away, she looked into the body of the church. There was no sign of Fiammetta in the nave. But she caught a glimpse of red hair at the far end of the building, under the chancel arch. Walking as quickly as decorum allowed, she wound her way through the groups of punters and crew crowding the south aisle, scarcely able to contain her excitement.
Her producer was in conversation with the lead cameraman, but Gemma knew she could interrupt.
Sorry, Fiammetta,’ she said, touching her boss on the elbow to get her attention. ‘You’re going to want to see this. Urgently. And I promise you, you’re going to really, really like it. I’ve got something wonderful for the Grot Slot. It’s perfect, the owner’s perfect, it’s… Well, you’ll see. Just try not to laugh in front of her, OK?’

Author Bio
Simon Edge was born in Chester and read philosophy at Cambridge University.
He was editor of the pioneering London paper Capital Gay before becoming a gossip columnist on the Evening Standard and then a feature writer on the Daily Express, where he was also a theatre critic for many years.
He has an MA in Creative Writing from City University, London. His first novel, The Hopkins Conundrum, was longlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award. He lives in Suffolk.
Read more about Simon and his work at www.simon-edge.com.
Social Media Links
Twitter: @simonjedge
Instagram: @simonjedge

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