Sunday, 16 February 2020

Moving Day (Bookhounds of London)

One of London's revered antiquarian bookshops, Sotheran's, moves to Sackville Street in the 1930s. The Hounds are there to see it off, and perhaps pick up a few crumbs - after all, anything can fall off the back of a lorry. Positively anything.

Sackville Street is one of those aspirational locations the Hounds long to be. In the heart of Piccadilly with well-heeled customers trotting by daily, Sotheran's bound to pick up some juicy commissions. Friends of the shop gather on moving day to share a glass of something suitably alcoholic with the shop's staff and owner.

The shop itself is a bit of a mess on moving day. Boxes everywhere, furniture piled up in the corners, anxious staff trying to ensure you don't - o, heavens! Look out! Well, it can't be helped. Another trinket smashed. Still, there are plenty more where that little glass geegaw came from. You're not hurt, are you? Oh, good. Smashing in fact, ha-ha! Let me get you another glass.

Sackville Street seems overburdened with tailor's shops, but there are one or two other businesses on the street. One of them is the Sackville Gallery, a mildly famous name, owned and operated by an offshoot of the Rothschild banking family. Back in the early 1910s it got a bit of notoriety for an exhibition of futurist paintings, but its usual stock in trade are old masters. The owner, Max, is getting on a bit (he dies in 1939) and the Gallery hasn't the social cachet it once had, but then it was always more of a hobby than a business for Max.

The gallery owner stops by with a present for Sotheran's, when the booksellers move in. He has a painting for Sotheran's, a view of Sackville Street showing their shop front. It's a bit more modernist than the Gallery's usual line - almost expressionist, really. Perhaps that's why Max felt safe giving it away rather than selling it for extortionate prices in his gallery. The street in the painting is almost empty. There's just one fellow standing outside the shop, but details are sketchy, and his face unreadable. Just a blob on the canvas.

While at the party, the Hounds notice that the painting seems uncomfortably lifelike. There are times when its clouds scud across a painted evening sky, and the drops of rain that seem to be slicking its pavement are felt on the back of an onlooker's neck. Meanwhile the little man with the unreadable face is sometimes there, and sometimes not. Or perhaps he moves, just a fraction, turning his blank face to look out at those looking in.

Max Rothschild is nowhere to be found, and his Gallery, if the Hounds check, is shut and locked up. The owner, according to a hand-written sign on the door, is in Spain on a buying trip.


A Famous Name: The artist's name is barely a squiggle, but there's enough there to work out he's a protégé of Klimt, who died shortly after the war. He was one of the many victims of the Spanish Flu epidemic. According to popular rumor he was very productive in the last months of his life, and claimed he was searching for that moment of pure inspiration - that split second when your soul transmutes into art. Is this what's left of him? But why a street in London, a street that, by rights, he never saw in life? Or could it be that the painting changes when it travels - one moment a Parisian scene, the next an Istanbul alleyway, but always a city. Megapolisimancy gone wrong - or right, depending on your perspective. The artist, it is said, had a fondness for bookstores, and would spend hours wandering in them. Perhaps he's looking for a permanent home.

Something Underneath: Is there a painting underneath the surface art? Some masked evil, perhaps, lurking under a placid front - but the soul of the painting is too strong to be perfectly concealed, which is why the surface appearance is so unsettling. Whether Dust Things or something more awful, there is a Mythos taint here. Which is no surprise, since 'Max Rothschild' is actually a bookshop rival who wants Sotheran's to fail, and fail spectacularly. This artistic albatross will keep customers away from the door, until it is somehow dealt with. Of course, if the Hounds intercede then Sotheran's does well. Do they want to encourage a rival?

Faceless: The painting is a prison, for a Nopperabo. The creature was trapped there by an exorcist, working for Max Rothschild. The art dealer was hounded by the creature ever since an unfortunate incident on his last buying trip, about which Max will not speak save to say it was the most remarkable, most terrifying moment of his life. The trouble was, even as a painting the thing has its own unique personality. Max just couldn't stand it a moment longer, and seized on this as the perfect opportunity to get rid of the thing. If pressured (Credit Rating, Intimidation, or Art used as a weapon - 'you'll never work in this town again' kind of thing) Max admits the whole sordid business, but refuses to take the painting back, even at gunpoint.  The Hounds will have to find some other way of dealing with it.

Stakes: Sotheran's is a competitor, after all. The Hounds don't have to do anything about it, and if they don't, Sotheran's suffers a reverse. Of course, if they do help, Sotheran's will be very grateful, and it's always good to have friends. If left to its own devices Sotheran's may try to find other ways to get rid of it, and the Hounds may not be happy with the result.


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