Sunday, June 5, 2016

“The Improbability of Love” by Hannah Rothschild

Hannah Rothschild is the daughter of Lord Jacob Rothschild. And her first novel is an exciting satire on the art world called, “The Improbability of Love”.  She comes from the perfect world to write on this subject.

Allow me to digress, should you find yourself in England with a craving for French culture you need not cross the channel but visit Waddesdon Manor, the Rothschild residence that is now a museum, in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, a one hour train trip from London.

I remember going there with my cousin Raphael Rosenberg who was working with Dorothy de Rothschild, known as Dolly, the widow of Baron James de Rothschild.  The land was originally farmland, which Baron Ferdinand purchased in 1874 to build the palace and gardens and was inherited by Baron James.  Raphael was assisting Dolly with an appraisal for the family and that is when I was allowed to come along.  I don’t remember the name of the curator who showed us around but he was known as the Colonel.  Waddesdon was turned over to the government as a trust house but Dolly supervised the opening of the ground floor slowly opening more and more of the palace until her death in 1988.  What a treat it was for me as a student to get up close and personal with the works of art with no crowds and no ropes holding us back.  Going back since has been wonderful but never quite the same!  In this short video you can see a few of the treasures from the house.

Waddesdon may now belong to the Nation, but it is administered by the Rothschild Charitable Trust overseen by Lord Jacob Rothschild.  You can see why the daughter of this philanthropist and art lover who continues to buy works of art for Waddesdon, and is herself on the board of the National Gallery in London, is perfectly equipped to write on the art world.

The novel includes a wonderful cast of characters.  At its heart is a young woman, Annie, whose aspiration is to become a great chef.  She buys a painting in a junk shop for an unrequited love and does not know what to do with it when she is stood up.  The hero of the piece is the painting itself, which is not shy to tell the highs and low points of its life.  It has lived in some of the great palaces of Europe but dwells on its owners such as Catherine the Great and Napoleon.  We learn that the painting is by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) the artist that brought to the fore, the fête champêtre, scenes of elaborate garden parties with plenty of frolicking most popular at the French Court.

Antoine Watteau, Wallace Collection

The picture refers to itself as "Moi", me in French, its first language.  “Moi” being from pre-revolutionary France, French phrases slip in every once in a while.

Annie wants to get rid of the picture but her alcoholic mother who has moved in with her daughter believes there is merit in the work and therein lies the plot.  How do you authenticate a painting?  What role does the condition of the picture have and what is it worth?

Believing in “Moi” Annie's mother, Evie, wants to investigate further and stuffs the painting into a plastic shopping bag, to take it to the Wallace Collection.  “Moi” complains bitterly that this is just not on for such an important picture, though no one knows this for sure at this point in the plot.  At the Wallace Evie takes the picture out of the bag and starts comparing it to paintings on the walls.

Nicolas Lancret, Wallace Collection

The picture shares the title with the book, “The Improbability of Love”, though never spelled out the theme appears in a number of the relationships including between Annie and Jesse, an artist and tour guide she meets at the Wallace Collection.  Jesse tries to teach Annie how to learn more about her painting.  They visit his friend the conservator at the National Gallery and he tells her to visit the drawings room at the British Museum.  On her own she visits the expert art historian who declares the masterpiece a fake.  Every stop both advances the plot and teaches something about the art world.

Like any good novel on the art market there is a “Nazi War Loot” angle and, of course, the inevitable auction.  The exaggerated motives for all the high and mighty to bid at the auction are hilarious, such as the President of France who feels it is a matter of French pride to repatriate this lost masterpiece and the Prime Minister of England wants to buy it just to spite the French, the Russian Oligarch wants to impress his girl friend, and the old dowager wants to liquidate her late husband’s foundation for this one last great purchase.

In between we get a number of lessons from “Moi” as well, such as his fear of the restorer as they can so easily damage his surface. There is the esthete Barty who shows the expatriate Russian what he can do to demonstrate his love for his girl friend.  The irrepressible Barty also tells the director of the National Gallery who complains that he has no time to look at art because he has meetings with Union leaders and lunches and dinners with prospective donors that he  is not alone -- the great  Renaissance sculptor “Donatello couldn’t pick up a chisel without Cosimo de Medici bursting into his studio.”

The most hilarious part of the book is probably at the end when you hear how all the characters ended up.  My intention, however, with this Missive is to encourage those interested in the Old Master world to read or listen to “The Improbability of Love”.  So no more spoilers!

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