A mad romp through the back alleys of a London museum, Waterfield’s send-up of high art and high society is one of the best academic satires to hit these shores since David Lodge’s Small World.
BRIT (formerly known as the Museum of English History) is a respectable old British institution that nobody cares for very much: Its curators, trustees, and staff all basically want to make a name for themselves so that they can move on to somewhere better. Auberon Booth, the self-satisfied director, came up with the idea of renaming the place for the millennium and launching a series of snazzy, press-catching exhibitions (“Luxury” was a great success, as was “Slums”) in a bid to jack up the museum’s public profile. His latest show, “Elegance,” centers on a Gainsborough portrait (Lady St. John as Puck) of an 18th-century aristocrat dressed for a masquerade. The Gainsborough belongs to Sir Lewis Burslem, the nouveau riche Chairman of the Board of Trustees, who’d wanted to sit on the board at the National Gallery and may get the chance to do so if the exhibition goes well. To get it off to a good start, Sir Lewis has arranged a gala opening-night banquet, focused both on the portrait (which will be wheeled into the dining room) and on the Duke of Clarence (who will be the first member of the Royal Family to set foot in BRIT since its renaming). Nothing can be permitted to go wrong, of course—always a recipe for disaster. Without giving anything away, let’s just say difficulties arise that could attract the attention of the security chief, the insurance underwriters, the art historians, the press, and the art forgery division of Scotland Yard. Not to mention Nigella Lawson, who would have been a big help to the hapless caterers.
Hilarious, deft, and quick: Waterfield, in his US debut, sniffs out pretense and vanity with a bad-natured sense of humor worthy of Hogarth.