Hannah Rothschild is an established insider of the London art world. Recently appointed Chair of the National Gallery, she is respected as both connoisseur and patron, and a champion of art education.
It has therefore been a cause for both delight and frisson in England that Rothschild—whose previous book was a biography—has written her first novel, The Improbability of Love, as a blistering, uninhibited and hilarious satire of the London art scene. Moreover, the writing is so good, interweaving a complex set of love stories of different kinds: romantic love, filial love, love of art.
The action hinges on the 18th-century French artist Antoine Watteau, whose fictional “lost” painting gives the novel its title. Rothschild mischievously invents this artwork and drops it in a London junk shop, where her 31-year-old heroine, Annie McDee, purchases it on a whim. Why Watteau?
“I’ve always been intrigued by Watteau’s paintings,” Rothschild tells us during a call to her London home. “The first one I ever saw was the ’Pierrot’ in the Louvre, that very mournful, clown-like figure. I was 16, on an exchange program to France, unsure about who I was or where I was going or what I was doing. ’Pierrot’ seemed to completely personify and captivate and reflect what I was feeling.”
A long-lost (and rather chatty) painting helps tell its story in this imaginative debut.
The artist’s somewhat obscure past helped as well. “We know almost nothing about Watteau himself,” says Rothschild, “and from a novelist’s point of view that’s quite useful because I can make stuff up about him, use my imagination.”
The painting is pursued by a roster of colorful characters, ranging from an aging drag queen who caters to the super-rich to a Russian oligarch to . . . well, someone very much like the author herself, a person of authority at the National Gallery of Art. Most surprising of all, the painting is a character in its own right, with a garrulous ability to narrate its history. This imaginative plot twist came from Rothschild’s childhood, during which she spent considerable time in museums with her father.
“All the pictures were just hanging around and I thought, if only they could talk!” she recalls. “Perhaps they would tell us what they’ve seen and heard,” as they hung in the ballrooms and boudoirs of great leaders.
Alongside the story of Annie and her painting, The Improbability of Love gives us a complex father-daughter relationship. Art purveyors Memling and Rebecca Winkleman present themselves as a Holocaust survivor and his faithful daughter, whose untold suffering seems to ennoble the work they do. But things are (very darkly) not what they seem. This thread of the book is, in some sense, a sustained meditation on the tendency of art to corrupt as readily as it can edify. The idea is central to the novel’s workings, though it can be eclipsed by the breezy mechanics of the plot and its wicked satirical pleasures.
“There is a thing about beauty which is both corrupting and exonerating,” Rothschild says. “Art corrupts because people want to possess something beautiful. It brings out some of the baser instincts.”
But then there is Annie, who has a passion for a different art. “Annie is a gourmet chef who knows very little about art, and she is really the only person in the novel who actually likes Watteau’s picture! Everyone else just wants to have it.”
Rothschild’s family name—her father is the Fourth Baron Roths-child and comes from a long line of successful bankers—is associated with a grand legacy of artistic acquisition and patronage. Adding this to her professional experience, Rothschild has an unusual degree of insight into the art world. We asked her if the novel’s frank exposure of the wackiness of the London art scene has gotten her into any professional hot water.
“No, not at all. In some ways, I’ve been quite restrained!” she says. “One of the riveting things about the art world is that you’ve got this very strange dichotomy between serious, low-paid, passionate, erudite individuals—curators, writers, the artists themselves—and almost their complete polar opposites: people who’ve got too much money and too little morals. And it all happens in one room! That’s why it’s such a gift to a novelist.”