Paperback: 288pp

Published: Lightning Books (July 2019)

ISBN: 9781785631306

A Right Royal Face-Off

Simon Edge


‘A glorious comedy of painting and pretension’

Ryan O’Neill

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

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?

Two and a half centuries later, a badly damaged painting turns up on a downmarket TV antiques 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.


The Duchess, it was easy to see, enjoyed being looked at.This was just as well. As the most scandalous woman inEngland, it was her fate to be the centre of attention wherever she went, whether she liked it or not.



The Duchess, it was easy to see, enjoyed being looked at.This was just as well. As the most scandalous woman inEngland, it was her fate to be the centre of attention wherever she went, whether she liked it or not.

At thirty-four, she was long past her prime. Even in the flickering candlelight, more lines were visible around her eyes than had been there when she last sat – more precisely, stood– for Tom, and she wore a thicker layer of paint on her face. Nevertheless, her allure remained immense. Her eyes, behind those legendarily long lashes, spoke of love to any beholder lucky enough to have them rest upon him. Her mouth seemed permanently organised into a pout of such coquettish power that strong men were enfeebled. Today she wore a gown of sensuous crimson silk, in the same shade as the ermine-trimmed robe strewn ornamentally over the tall plinth next to her, alongside her coronet. Her petticoats exploded out of the front of her gown in a dazzle of silver brocade. Her hair, powdered a fashionable iron grey, towered majestically towards the ceiling, and her gleaming white arms and breasts nestled in teasing lace flounces. She was ravishing still, and she knew it, which was undoubtedly why she was content to stand nearly an hour in the same pose, her rouged cheek resting on one slender finger, her eyes fixed somewhere over Tom’s right shoulder, as he worked barely a foot away.

The Duke, her husband, had also arrived in full royal fig, the gold chain around his neck clanking against the gold buttons of his waistcoat. Two or three years younger than his wife, he had put behind him his days as the worst rake in town, and his regard for her was absolute. That they had arrived in tandem was a mark of this devotion.

Unlike his wife, the Duke was a fidget, unable to stay still for more than a few moments at a time. In the past hour, he had paced around the studio, causing havoc in his wake ashis sweeping velvet train knocked over boxes, jars and a pile of empty frames. Eventually, the Duchess had successfully enjoined him to remove his cloak, and since the couple had not brought their own footman, she had taken it upon herself to lay it neatly on a side-table. But still the Duke had tripped over an easel as he persisted in trying to peer at the faces looking back at him from their shadowy frames on the walls. Every time he knocked into something, he cursed loudly at the darkness thatTom insisted on maintaining in the studio, even though it was bright noon outside.

‘Can’t you open the blasted curtains, man?’ he demanded. ‘A feller can’t see a perishing thing in here.’

Tom stood firm. Years of experience had taught him that it was easier to capture a precise likeness when only the face was lit, and all its surroundings were in the deepest possible gloom. If that meant a member of the Royal Family tripping over everything because he could not remain at repose for more than a few seconds, so be it.

The Duke of Cumberland was the younger and more disgraceful of the King’s two surviving brothers, although both were too much for His Majesty. The middle brother, the Duke of Gloucester, had already visited the studio, as Cumberland now discovered with a shout of surprise.

‘Damn me, if it isn’t Brother Billy! It’s so damned dark, I didn’t notice him before.’

The full-length canvas was leaning against the wall just behind where Tom stood, which meant that this cry was delivered very close to his left ear. He hoped the Duchess did not notice his own involuntary wince at the outburst. She was still looking over his right shoulder, but her pouting lips twitched in amusement.

‘How is it, my dear? Is it very like?’

‘Hard to see in this damned gloom.’

Tom could sense the Duke peering closer towards the portrait.

‘What the devil are these trees? A child could do better!’

Tom coughed discreetly. ‘The picture is unfinished, sir. It is customary to finish the setting last.’

‘What of the face, my dear? Is it like?’

‘Behhhh...passing like,’ the Duke conceded.

Tom sensed that his visitor did not bestow compliments lightly.

‘Damned tricky for you, though,’ he continued, prodding Tom on the shoulder with his cane.

The jolt made Tom’s hand jump, so that a dab of crimson from the Duchess’s right cheekbone now spilled onto what ought to be the distant background.

‘How is that, sir?’ he asked, mopping away the rogue colour with a damp piece of sponge from a saucer beside him, and hoping the irritation did not sound in his voice.

‘Let’s face it, he’s an ugly blighter, and ye’d be mad not to try and pretty him up a little, wouldn’t ye? Eh? Ha!’


‘One part mystery, one part history, one part satire, and wholly entertaining. A hilarious portrait of the artist as a frustrated man, Simon Edge’s novel is a glorious comedy of painting and pretension’

Ryan O’Neill

‘I loved this book, a laugh-out-loud contemporary satire skewering today’s tired reality TV formats married with a tale of vicious rivalry in the world of 18th century royal portraiture. Simon Edge manages to pin asses ears onto the lot of them, to great comic effect’

Liz Trenow

‘I enjoyed this beguiling book very much. The interwoven strands between 1780s and the 2010s are beautifully managed and brilliantly resolved’

Hugh Belsey

‘It is so good to have a new novel which brings to life so well the age of Thomas Gainsborough and the wonderful story of the rivalry of the two great painters of the day’

Mark Bills, Director, Gainsborough’s House

‘A real gem of a read’

Susan A King


‘The way in which the eighteenth century is rendered in this novel is witty, observant and joyously gossipy. The characterisations are sharp and Simon Edge has the painter’s eye for detail. It is paced beautifully and nothing is wasted’

NB magazine

‘The more of Simon Edge you read, the more you realise that every element of his stories is hand-selected and glued to the bigger picture – it’s whimsical, farce-like… scrapbooky, in the best possible way’

Buzz Magazine

‘The rivalry between Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds is at the heart of this larky novel’

Saga Magazine

‘It hooked me straight in from the beginning. It’s brilliant. I think you’ll enjoy this if you’re looking for a summer read’

Lesley Dolphin, BBC Radio Suffolk

‘A tremendously enjoyable dual-timeline story centred on a painting by Thomas Gainsborough. Energetic and lively, it’s a book you can’t put down. Absolutely to recommend. A masterpiece!’

Books are Cool

‘With sheer comedy and a lot of ambition, this short novel combines excellent writing, seemingly effortless historical research and a great understanding of people to create a really enjoyable read’

Northern Reader

‘Edge’s Gainsborough is a likeable rogue, an ambitious painter locked in a professional tussle with Joshua Reynolds, and a father who worries about his grownup daughters….All the characters, from George III to Kaz Kareem, ‘a midway evictee from one of the last seasons of Big Brother’, are superbly realised. There are elements which remind me strongly of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia….It’s an excellent novel’

Books and Wine Gums

‘If you thought the art world was stuffy and dull, think again! The perfect antidote to the miserable, crazy world we currently live in... A blast to read and quite touching at times, it’s a book that has a little bit of everything from history to mystery to satire. I highly recommend it’

Books and Me

‘The real and fictional characters sit comfortably together and are brought to life in this comical, entertaining and cleverly told story’

Against the Flow Press

‘A deft and exuberant satire that is pointed whilst avoiding cruelty’

Never Imitate

‘A richly entertaining account of Gainsborough's life and his rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds. This beautiful novel is written with a light touch and sharp, quirky style, reminiscent of Henry Fielding’

Chez Maximka

‘It paints a picture that the reader can see from up close as well as from afar. Kind of like Gainsborough’s paintings themselves. I enjoyed every moment’

Trails of Tales

‘Funny, interesting, a real page turner – this is a book that you didn’t know you needed on your reading list, but you do!’

Cup of Toast

‘Just when you think there are no more original plot-lines for a book, along comes this one. It’s the book you didn’t know you wanted to read…but trust me, you’ll love it’

Jena C Henry

‘Simon Edge leads the reader on a journey to the past to experience the lifestyle and competitiveness of the world of portraiture. A highly enjoyable and informative story’

Jera’s Jamboree

‘Art, rivalry and daytime TV – what could be better? Thank you for a funny, witty look at the art world’

Karen Reads and Recommends

‘There are elements of comedy and drama alike in each tale, and the pace is kept up throughout. I thoroughly enjoyed the mystery at the heart of the modern timeline. I’d highly recommend this one’

Jennifer C Wilson

‘Edge writes with charm and a cheeky sense of humour. It’s historical fiction infused with the critical and disillusioned voice of the present’

Cheryl M-M’s Book Blog

‘Well written, funny and very enjoyable – a hard book to put down. Five stars from me’

Donna’s Book Blog


Simon Edge writes in the Daily Express about the new revival of interest in Thomas Gainsborough, of which his own novel is a key element.

He talks to Robert Elms on BBC Radio London about A Right Royal Face-Off (from 1hr 36mins).

And here he is talking about it on London Live TV,

He tells All Things Georgian about the demands of researching a novel set in the 18th century.

And here he is interviewed on BBC Radio Suffolk, starting from 1hr 22mins.

In a guest blogpost he explains how his comic novel about Thomas Gainsborough has coincided with a revival in the profile of the painter.

And in this one he explains why he chose the medium of comedy to write about Gainsborough.

Novelist Tim Ewins discusses A Right Royal Face-Off on the Reading Envy podcast.


Simon Edge

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 and critic on the Daily Express. He has an MA in Creative Writing from City University, London, where he also taught literary criticism.

He is the author of five novels, all published by Lightning Books: The Hopkins Conundrum, longlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award, The Hurtle of Hell, A Right Royal Face-Off, Anyone for Edmund? and The End of the World is Flat.

He lives in Suffolk.