Jason Kent-Hughes, the adopted son of Michael and Sarah, is working as an assistant curator at the Tate Modern. Sarah describes him as their “San Francisco street child with a gift for painting and art administration.” After graduating from school in London, he did a year of military and then enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London. After receiving his degree, he joined the Tate Modern.
As he explains to Michael, he gave a talk at the museum about the paintings done by Sarah that are in the Tate’s collection. It’s part of a regular weekly feature, he says, in which a staff member speaks about their choice of topic – something they’re working on, something in the collection, an upcoming exhibition, a research project, and so on.
The lectures are open to the public and generally draw anywhere from 30 to 300 people, apart from the staff attending. Jason’s talk on Sarah’s paintings brings 2,000, forcing the museum to move the event to Power Hall (the Tate Modern’s huge interior space). It’s also videotaped and posted for sale on the museum’s web site, resulting in 30,000 orders during the first day. The museum suspects there’s a huge financial and artistic potential here, and it asks Jason to curate a major exhibition of Sarah’s work. Assembling the exhibition becomes his full-time job for the next 18 months.
Jason uses a journal of works kept by Sarah, starting with the paintings she did for her senior university project (described in Dancing Priest). Through some fairly intense work, he’s able to track 99 of her 101 listed paintings. The two that he can’t locate are the last ones, and they’re described in the journal with rather puzzling letters. What he knows is that these two paintings are likely important, because Sarah had been evolving her style and clearly reaching for something more.
Jim Kent-Hughes, the other adopted son of Michael and Sarah, accidentally comes across painting #100. It is their youngest child, Tommy, who holds the key to painting #101. All of Sarah’s paintings, and even her studio, become flashpoints in the relationship between Michael and Tommy. But those two paintings will be the most serious tension points.
I’d like to say I understood exactly what I was doing when I developed the story of the two paintings. Perhaps I did, subconsciously. But it was only after the book was published, and I had reread it (twice), that I realized the story of the two paintings are the bookends for the entire series of five novels. Sarah’s paintings and art play an important role in the first book, Dancing Priest. And they play a critical role in the final book, Dancing Prince.
The story of the two paintings also speaks to something else – the meaning of art in our lives. We can look at a painting say “I like it” or “I don’t like it” or “They call that art? I could have painted that.” Or we can be so struck by a painting that words fail us. The first time that happened to me was in London, and (surprise) it was at the Tate Modern. It was a portrait of Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton. That one painting brought me back three times to the museum during a 2012 visit, and I still don’t know if I can adequately describe the impression it made on me. Another annual exhibition in London that we’ve seen all five times we’ve visited is the BP Portrait Awards, which has a similar effect on me.
In Dancing Prince, those last two paintings will affect virtually every character who sees them in a very similar way that those paintings in London affected me. For Michael and Tommy, the impact will be far greater.