"The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner"
(reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 22, 2004)
"The full-length portrait shows the twenty-four-year-old Lady St. John in 1775.. She wears a shimmering dark costume, half rustic bodice and skirt, half doublet, evidently the costume of Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream.. In the bottom left-hand corner of the painting appears, for no very clear reason, a greyhound, rather an individual and English sort of greyhound. It gazes lovingly at its mistress."
In his delightful send-up of the art world, museums, their trustees, and conservators, author Giles Waterfield recreates one tumultuous day in the life of the BRIT, the Museum of British History, as it prepares for a major exhibition, the centerpiece of which is an almost unknown painting by Gainsborough. Owned by Sir Lewis Burslem, Chairman of the BRIT Board of Trustees, the painting is being unveiled at the grand opening of the museum's show "Elegance," featuring major works of the 18th century. HRH The Duke of Clarence, important benefactors of the museum, the press, and select members of the public have been invited to celebrate the unveiling of the painting. BRIT staff members, however, have questioned whether it is appropriate for the chairman to exhibit his own painting, which would bestow the museum's stamp of approval upon it and dramatically increase its value. They also wonder about the degree of restoration to the painting, since even the conservators have been barred from seeing it until the day of its public exhibition.
The painting, Lady St. John impersonating Puck, sets the tone for the entire novel, which is loosely based on Shakespeare's comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play in which two couples, in love but at cross-purposes, wander into woods governed by the King and Queen of Fairies, and all become the sport of a group of "rude mechanicals" (common tradesmen) rehearsing a play they've written but do not know how to stage. Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of Fairies, here become Auberon Booth, the Director of the museum, and his (almost invisible) girlfriend, Tanya. Helena and Hermia, the women who have their problems with their suitors in Shakespeare's play, are loosely represented here by Helen Lawless, the Asst. Curator of Art, and Hermia Bianchini, the Exhibitions Assistant. Bottom, the leader of the "rude mechanicals" who is trying to produce a play, is echoed in John Winterbotham, the Head of Security, who is trying to protect the Gainsborough and all the guests at the grand opening of "Elegance."
Fortunately, author Waterfield merely nods to Midsummer Night's Dream as his inspiration, not allowing it to dominate or control his characters and plot, preferring to reflect any debt he may have to Shakespeare in his broad comedy, the farce-like disasters which befall the prideful trustees and administrators, and his gentle satire of pretension-along with the desire of the wealthy to control the direction of institutions which they do not necessarily understand.
The novel opens "on the morning of Midsummer's Day of 2001," as the young "warders" working for Security patrol the museum, and the officious John Winterbotham reviews his security systems. Characters, listed in a Cast of Characters at the front of the novel, get up, begin their days, and arrive at their offices. Helen Lawless, curator in charge of the exhibition, manages to sneak a peak at the Gainsborough and leaves with some questions about the dog in the left-hand corner. Jane Vaughn, the Chief Curator and Curator of Art, also sees it and has some questions about it. She has discovered a significant difference in the appearance of the dog between the current painting and an early photograph. Eventually, Diana, Jane, and the head of the Conservation Department all have significant enough questions that they plot to get a look at the painting without the presence of Security so they can shine a UV light on it to examine the surface.
As the other characters become involved in the action, the reader soon realizes that this is a study of egos and ambition as reflected in the clash between the trustees of the museum and the "worker bees" who run it. Sir Lewis Burslem, the chairman of the Board of Trustees and owner of the Gainsborough, wants to create a legacy by building an addition to the museum so large it will overshadow the original museum. Celebrating "The Nowness of Now," it is to be a celebration of Britain in the present, "reflecting the volcanic dynamism inherent in the twenty-first century," not as seen in the art of the century, but as seen in the machinery and workplace tools of its citizens, citizens with whom he never associates, if he can help it. Auberon Booth, the Director of the museum, hates the way Sir Lewis "meddles over exhibitions, purchases, appointments. I hate the way he keeps saying the museum's a business and should be run like one.Is the man stupid, or is this an intimidation technique?" Auberon, like most of the rest of the staff, is looking for employment elsewhere. Other employees, in readying the banquet hall for the show and dinner, deliberately set red herrings for the chairman so that he will correct those obvious errors and not notice the more important issues which they intend to correct themselves.
Adding color to this rousing narrative are several "thwarted in love" scenarios, which take place on all levels of the book's "society," the most delightful of which is between Bill and Anna, two of the security warders on duty at the exhibition. The plot comes to a climax at the banquet celebrating the exhibition, when Sir Lewis's far too ambitious menu creates havoc among the catering staff (which has no kitchen in which to prepare four hundred meals), and, in a slapstick scene worthy of Monty Python, the chef ends up in a vat of raspberry coulis.
This book is loads of fun to read--light reading, beautifully executed--and one need not be familiar with either Shakespeare or with museums to take immense pleasure in it. The author's experience working at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and at a gallery in London has given him a close-up look at art connoisseurs, benefactor/trustees of non-profit organizations, and the professionals who work at these institutions, but he chooses to walk the fine line between trenchant observation and biting satire. Ultimately, Waterfield manages to present a warm and rather gentle spoof of a world usually hidden from the public.
- Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Hound in the Left-hand Corner at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Looking at Art: Faces (1982)
- Soane and After (1987)
- Rich Summer of Art (1988)
- Palaces of Art: Art Galleries in Britain 1790-1990 (1992)
- Art for the People: Culture in the Slums of Late Victorian Britain (1994)
- In Celebration: The Art of the Country House (1998)
- Art Treasures of England: The Regional Collections (1998) (with Jane Martineau)
- Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servant Portraits (February 2004) (with Anne French)
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- Guardian Unlimited review of The Hound in the Left-hand Corner
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About the Author:
Giles Waterfield an independent fine art curator, art historian, teacher and novelist, who was the Director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery from 1979 until 1996. He curated the Art Treasures of England exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1998. Currently he is joint Director of the Attingham Summer School, which is devoted to the study of the English country house, and also Director of Royal Collection Studies. He was appointed as one of the fourteen trustees for the National Heritage Memorial Fund in September 2000.
His first novel, The Long Afternoon, won the McKitterick Prize in 2001. The Hound in the Left-hand Corner was shortlisted for the new Saga prize and on the longlist for the 2004 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.