Welcome to my stop of the blog tour for The Horse’s Arse with a guest post from the author and an excerpt from the book.
Birth of the hero of The Horse’s Arse
If you’ve ever edited a specialist magazine you’ll know it’s a hamster wheel you can never get off. Round and round it goes – planning, commissioning, writing, editing, designing – often leaving the editor no time to pursue the specialism that got them the job in the first place. From 1994-99 I edited Artists & Illustrators magazine, and during those five years I went to fewer exhibitions and private views than at any other time in my life, being usually chained to my desk at private view time. But one exhibition I made an exception for. An invitation card arrived with a painting of the Thames at Wapping that I had to see. No other artist I knew of was painting like this, and I decided to go along and ask him for an interview.
At the crowded private view in a warehouse in Clink Street – where people were, unusually, mostly looking at the pictures – I asked to be introduced to the artist. The man I met was not at all what I’d been expecting. I knew he was in his 60s and had expected a distinguished white-haired painter, but this man had multicoloured, badly dyed hair and aqua-coloured trousers. Still, there was no doubt that he had painted these extraordinary pictures. When he happened to mention that he ran an art class, I joined it.
The class was a revelation. He became a close friend and I followed his classes to different venues for two to three years until he was diagnosed with cancer and could no longer teach. When he was terminally ill in the Middlesex Hospital, I visited one day to find his bed had been stripped. A nurse informed me that he had died a couple of hours before. The old Middlesex Hospital had a beautiful chapel gifted by the singer Kathleen Ferrier, and I stopped there on the way out. I was sitting in a pew when something very strange happened: I heard him laughing.
Fast forward 10 years and I’m a freelance art critic on a different hamster wheel – less regular, jerkier but still draining. I decide to introduce some fun into my life by writing a satirical novel about the art world. The model for my hero was an obvious choice, and I’m sure he would be recognisable to anyone who knew him from his appearance, his sayings, and his approach to painting. He is literally drawn from life. Everything that happens around him is made up, but the reactions to what happens would, I hope, have been his.
What sort of man is Patrick Phelan? He’s a distinct individual, but also a typical artist – an artist everyman. Like most committed artists, he’s profoundly selfish but only when it comes to his art, which nothing can be allowed to interfere with. He’s completely uninterested in commercial success, so long as he has enough money to live. What he longs for, though, is recognition. He wants his work to be seen, especially his major work: the series of monumental paintings of The Seven Seals from Revelation to which he has devoted half his life.
Divorce is an occupational hazard for an artist like Phelan, and its guilt about not supporting his ex-wife that gets him unwittingly involved in a forgery scam dreamt up by the wheeler-dealer son he neglected as a child. Pat is naïve not because he’s stupid, but because his mind is always on other things – either art or women. Despite his gammy hips, he’s vain about his appearance and refuses to tell anyone his age. He dyes his hair and wears charity shop clothes in the sorts of bright colours you’d expect to find on a beach bum rather than an artist: a plumage to satisfy his love of colour and attract the girls.
“What happened to all the drunken artists?” Peter Blake recently asked. In an art market of slick modern professionals, Phelan represents a dying breed. He connects us with the art of the past. Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Rembrandt were all casualties of their total commitment to their art. If you want to understand the mentality of the great masters, Phelan is a better guide than Damien Hirst.
About the book
When not running art classes for amateurs, Patrick wrestles in the shed at the bottom of his garden with his life’s work: a series of visionary canvases of The Seven Seals.
When his wheeler-dealer son Marty turns up with a commission from a rich client for some copies of paintings by modern masters, Phelan reluctantly agrees; it means money for his ex-wife Moira. However the deal with Marty is, typically, not what it seems.
What follows is a complex chain of events involving fakery, fraud, kidnapping, murder, the Russian Mafia and a cast of dubious art world characters. A contemporary spin on Joyce Cary’s classic satire The Horse’s Mouth, The Horse’s Arse by Laura Gascoigne is a crime thriller-cum-comic-fable that poses the serious question: where does art go from here?
From Chapter I of The Horse’s Arse, where the hero Pat Phelan has hired a model to pose in his studio shed for a painting in the style of Degas. He’s only agreed to do it for the money, as it means interrupting work on his chef d’oeuvre of The Seven Seals.
“Returning with the mugs of tea, Pat risked a momentary halt in mid-garden to admire the Shed of Rev’s front elevation. How Dino had managed to build a double-fronted cabin with a veranda entirely out of skip wood was a miracle. All that was needed for perfection was a rocking chair, but in a rocking chair he’d be a sitting duck for Ron.
He could see Irene standing framed in the left-hand window in her old kimono, holding a cigarette and wearing the exact expression he’d been after. That was a picture worth painting, but it would have to wait. Funny how many artists painted women from behind looking out of windows and how few thought of doing them from in front.
So many pictures to be painted, and so little time.
On his way back in with the teas, he raised the mugs in a silent toast to the stack of tall canvases propped against the wall to the right of the entrance. “You too my beauties, I haven’t forgotten you,” he whispered mentally. “You’re the real McCoy. But first we must get Degas out of the way.”
The money would keep Moira happy, that was the main thing. Not that she ever complained, but that made things worse. If her useless excuse for a second husband would only get off his arse and keep her in the style to which she should have been accustomed it wouldn’t be an issue, but every time Pat thought of her scrubbing floors on her hands and knees his heart sank. Beautiful bright Moira working as a cleaner, while he swanned about the place being an artist. Was it self-indulgence? It was what he did. It was a job, unpaid perhaps but a job all the same. Wait until The Seven Seals were opened, then the world would see that Patrick Phelan had not been wasting his time. When the heptatych landed, the world wouldn’t know what hit it.”
About Laura Gascoigne
Currently living in Hampstead, North London, Laura Gascoigne has worked as an art journalist for over twenty years, editing Artists & Illustrators (1994-1999) before going freelance. Laura was born in Cairo in 1950, the daughter of a bookseller and an Italian teacher, and grew up in Brussels and Cambridge before studying Classics at Oxford University. Her sister is the writer Marina Warner. Surrounded as a child by the paintings her father collected, she has always had a passion for art and when not writing about it, she paints.