Isn’t this a classic set-up? Two amateur detectives follow a trail that immerses them in a mystery far greater than they’d envisaged. Having intended merely to unravel the history of the ruined house they’d bought to restore, they quickly found that the house had had a previous owner (the Lost Pre-Raphaelite, Robert Bateman) who, as they gradually discovered, had been regarded in the late nineteenth century as a major artist (exhibiting alongside Burne Jones and others) before, following scandals around the trendy Grosvenor Gallery, he vanished into a long recluse-like existence with his unlikely wife, who he had plucked from the Howard family (the Howards of Castle Howard). He had married Caroline Howard as soon as possible after her previous husband – the much older Reverend Wilbraham – died following a cold bath outside in December. That marriage (an aristocratic woman to a mere minister) also seemed inexplicable. And Bateman, his wife, his works, and almost every document about them, had been expunged, almost certainly by the family a century before. Why? What had he done? What was the truth about Robert Bateman?
This is, in fact, a true story, written by a man whose restoration of Biddulph Old Hall was covered in BBC2’s Restored To Glory, a man who, with his partner, had the money, time and determination (soon to become an obsession) to uncover the truth – a truth that turned out to be as murky and serpentine as in any Victorian novel, with many of the tropes of a Victorian novel (though I won’t spoil your pleasure by revealing them here).
The main objectives of the two detectives were eventually gained: family secrets were exposed, (some) lost paintings were rediscovered, and Biddulph Old Hall was persuaded to give up its secrets. Nevertheless, some of the now valuable Bateman paintings remain undiscovered (check your attic!) and some of Daly’s historic detail remains conjecture. We might argue with the motives he ascribes to the elderly Reverend Wilbraham, for example – did the old man marry to oblige an aristocratic master or had he secrets of his own? Did the scandals around the Grosvenor and Simeon Solomon play a larger part in Bateman’s earlier life than is suggested here?
These tiny quibbles must not detract from the curiously gripping present-day story of the two men’s quest among aristocrats, adventurers and the art-world (not to mention abandonment and architecture) all presented by Wilmington Square Books this year in a superb format. The book is graced with family trees, over 120 pictures (mainly in colour) and is, oh particular joy, sewn rather than merely glued together. A lovely thing.
This is not the normal stamping-ground for a crime fiction reader; it is real-life detection, the painstaking, often wearisome teasing out of the truth. But we owe it to ourselves to sometimes return to reality (where truth, as we’re so often told, is stranger than fiction). Plunge yourself into this extraordinary story. As Bateman himself carved into stone: Carpe Diem!
The Lost Pre-Raphaelite by Nigel Daly
Published by Wilmington Square Books (an imprint of Bitter Lemon Books)
£25 hardback ISBN 978-1-908524-38-6