A few weeks ago, his lordship the Earl of Wemyss and March, master of Gosford House in the Scottish county of East Lothian, disburdened himself of Botticelli’s exquisite Virgin Adoring the Christ Child for a price of twenty million pounds sterling. Since the buyer was the Kimbell Museum in Texas, there was a fine old British row about treasures leaving the country, irresponsible noblemen denuding the national patrimony, and the failure of the National Gallery of Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” to come up with matching funds for the retention of the masterpiece. This is an old set-piece tale in Britain: I remember as a schoolboy at the age of ten being asked to subscribe my pocket money to keep a Leonardo cartoon in the United Kingdom. And the story loses nothing by the addition of a dim and acquisitive Scots peer. But what struck me most about the otherwise familiar newspaper coverage was this. Until the earl decided to realize his Botticelli on the Texas market, nobody knew it was there.
It happens all the time. A culture whose summa is the country house, and a culture to which Empire once afforded numerous possibilities of loot, and a culture furthermore where the eccentric collector is a stock character, is awash in unlocated paintings, manuscripts, and items of furniture. Since the landed and agricultural interest has been in decline for some time—indeed has been making a specialty of its deathbed speech for over a century now—the “discovery” of a trove is most commonly associated with the need for once-grand dynasties to pay off inheritance or estate taxes, or to get out of debt. Lord Cowdray’s family recently raised nine million pounds for these purposes by selling Rembrandt’s 1667 Portrait of an Elderly Man to the Mauritshuis in Amsterdam. Japanese banks, American galleries, and Swiss pension funds, one presumes, retain professionals to scrutinize old copies of Country Life magazine, in the hope of glimpsing a nice canvas in the background of a hunt-ball photograph.
This intersection of the art market, the class system, and what might be termed the English or British character furnishes an ideal locus for Michael Frayn. In his essays and in his plays and screenplays (Noises Off and Clockwise being notable here) he has raised an edifice of gentle but by no means innocuous satire of his fellow countrymen. His first novel, The Tin Men, published in 1965, was a mordant and hilarious account of the last version of “the New Britain,” with mad and manipulative computer scientists, housed in the “William Morris Institute of Automation Research,” being entirely unhorsed by a sudden royal visit. More than one reviewer compared the tempo to that of the young Evelyn Waugh, and indeed a subsequent novel, Towards the End of the Morning, is the only fiction set in Fleet Street that can bear comparison with Scoop.
Frayn’s preferred raw material is the status anxiety, and vulnerability to embarrassment, of the bien-pensant middle class …