Patrick Phelan is an ageing artist who has never made it big but who somehow manages to live on air in a North London suburb.
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?
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The Horse’s Arse and my love affair with art
I grew up in a house full of paintings that my father collected. It seemed natural to have the walls covered in painted views of other places. There were prints of Cairo, where I was born and where my father managed an English bookshop. There were paintings of Italy, where my mother came from, though not the South where she was born in Bari. They were mostly views of Venice, bringing light and warmth to the Cambridgeshire chill.
I was reasonably good at art at school, but that wasn’t where my love affair with it began. I think I can date it to a visit to our house by an old artist called Adrian Daintrey. In those days there was a country house circuit where people of a certain class invited each other to stay for weekends, and charming bachelor artists like Daintrey were in demand as house guests. I must have been around 11 when he first came to stay and after dinner, when the liqueurs were passed, I was given a glass of Crème de Menthe as a treat. My father believed in introducing his children to the joys of alcohol, in small doses. The next time Daintrey came to stay he brought a small bottle of Crème de Menthe, and presented it to me. That was the point at which I decided that artists were wonderful.
Scroll on a couple of years and the demands of the school curriculum made me give up art for Latin and Greek, which I was better at. My first boyfriend was at art school, but after I won a place at university to study Classics art faded into the background. It was only when I left university, having decided I wasn’t cut out for academic life, that art came back into the picture. I set up a business in Chelsea designing and making patchwork quilts, which by a bit of bad timing coincided with the three-day week. When the business failed, I offered my services as a ghost-writer to the animal sculptor John Skeaping, who lived in the South of France and was working on his autobiography (published in 1977 as Drawn from Life).
Skeaping was formative artist No 2. The Moulin de la Taillade in Castries, outside Montpellier, where he lived with his third wife Maggie was a home from home and the year I spent there was an education in how artists live, not just for me but everyone else who stayed there. Skeaping’s students became friends and opened up a world of other artists to me. After I married and my four-year-old son Spike won a watercolour set in an art competition at the local library, I stole it off him and began painting watercolour landscapes. I was hooked.
In my 40s, with two children in primary school, I applied for a part-time job as editor’s secretary for a couple of mornings a week at the practical art magazine Artists & Illustrators. A few months later they sacked the editor and gave the job to me. As it was a practical magazine, part of the job involved taking artists into a photographer’s studio to document how they worked. For the magazine’s readers the technical nuts and bolts were what mattered – how an artist laid a watercolour wash or built up an oil painting – but what fascinated me was their attitude and way of looking at the world.
Since leaving the magazine and going freelance, I get asked to write about old and modern masters and what fascinates me is that although techniques and ways of painting have changed, artists’ attitudes to life have remained constant. You could transport Caravaggio from the early 17th century to today and he would be on exactly the same wavelength as the artists I have got to know through my work; ditto Rembrandt or Matisse. It’s this way of being in the world, this complete commitment to looking at the world and trying to solve the mystery of how it can be represented, that I wanted to communicate through The Horse’s Arse.
‘What life is this if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?’ asked the Welsh hobo poet WH Davies. Making time to stand and stare is what artists do, and our frenetic world needs them more than ever.
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