To give him his due, Algernon was the first to admit that he was an arrogant sod.  An only son, born into a wealthy family, brought up in a stately home with a flag flying from the tower, schooled by a private tutor, waited on by servants − he had led a charmed life.

When he was ten years old he inherited an endowment from his grandfather who was accidentally shot by his gamekeeper. The inheritance was generous and obviated the need for Algernon to earn his living.  Aged eighteen, he embarked on a round the world adventure, lingering in Thailand for three years and living a carefree existence as a beach bum, his beard and long hair bleached by the tropical sun.  Despite an unashamed reputation for being selfish and promiscuous, his wealth and his Harley-Davidson, a throbbing armchair on wheels, were magnets for a constant stream of girl friends.

He fancied himself as an artist and cultivated a style remarkably reminiscent of Gauguin.  He was prolific, producing numerous colourful landscapes and portraits of his girlfriends in various stages of undress, despatching batches of canvases back home where they were stored in the ballroom.

However, his carefree life came to an abrupt halt when his alcoholic father died from liver failure and his mother implored him to return home and take up his duties as the local squire.  So, with a heavy heart, he sold the Harley-Davidson, bid his distraught girlfriends farewell, and returned to Hertfordshire to find a forlorn flag still flying at half mast.

Having studied the household accounts, he calculated that the current rate of expenditure, plus restoring crumbling stonework and fixing a leaky roof, meant destitution within five years.  So, Algernon, energetic and still bronze from his sojourn in the Far East, astonished his mother with an ambitious plan to turn the stately home and its 120 acre estate into a viable business.  Never given to self-doubt, he negotiated a substantial loan from Coutts, the family’s bankers for over one hundred years.

Algernon’s entrepreneurial zeal knew no bounds: the lake was stocked and fishing rights sold, glamping sites were built in the extensive woods, with a dozen luxury tree houses each accommodating up to six people and, for those with no head for heights, yurts strategically placed to ensure privacy.  Areas were set aside for a whole variety of outdoor events: pop festivals, operas, hot air balloons, vintage car rallies, sculpture exhibitions.  An undulating quad track snaked its way round the extremities of the estate.  A vineyard was established on a south facing slope.  Plans were in hand to create a golf course and a zip wire adventure.

Algernon’s mother was relocated to a restored cottage on the estate and a wing of the main  house was refurbished and set aside as a conference centre. The extensive outbuildings were converted into separate business units with a gin distillery, a pottery school, a jewellery maker, and a weaver in residence. The large tithe barn was converted into an art gallery with Algernon’s paintings looking splendid in pools of light provided by strategically placed spot lights.

The various activities, inside and out, were set up as separate profit centres, each with a manager incentivised to breakeven within three years and make handsome profits thereafter.

Algernon, feeling self satisfied, adopted the habit of doing daily walkabouts, inspecting this and that and urging staff on to greater heights.  One day he completed his rounds by calling into the gallery before lunch and the duty manager told him that a young woman had visited earlier and left her card.

‘She admired your paintings and was keen to meet you, sir.  Something about a business proposition.’

Algernon read the card:  Virginia Burnes-Eastmacott, with an upmarket Chelsea address.  Intrigued and, as always, keen to explore new opportunities, Algernon phoned the number on the card and invited Ms Burnes-Eastmacott to lunch.

On the appointed day, an attractive blonde arrived in an open-top silver Mercedes, the generous tyres crunching on the gravel.  She chuckled as Algernon opened her door and, as she swung her legs out of the driver’s seat, her split-skirt gave Algernon a fleeting glimpse of her firm thighs.

‘Thanks for agreeing to see me.’ she said, with a broad smile and offering a well manicured hand. ‘Call me Virginia.’

Over lunch in the orangery, they exchanged small talk, with Virginia, unashamedly flirtatious, enthusing about Algernon’s paintings and his entrepreneurial flair.  Algernon, lapping up the flattery and feeling well disposed towards this young woman, attempted to refill her wine glass.  ‘No thanks, I’m driving,’  she said, her hand hovering protectively over her glass.

Algernon sighed and topped up his own glass.  ‘So, let’s get to the point. I understand you have a business proposition to put to me.  I’m all ears.’

‘I thought you’d never ask.’ Virginia gave him a smouldering sidelong glance. ‘I wondered if you’ve ever considered exhibiting works by other artists in your gallery?’

‘There have been some approaches but I’ve always turned them down.  To be honest,’ Algernon smirked, ‘the gallery is an ego-trip.  Why invite competition?’

‘Just as I thought.’  Virginia paused, uncrossed her shapely legs and leant back, her skirt riding up generously exposing three more inches of her thighs.  ’Suppose I knew someone who’d be happy for you to pass off his paintings as your own.  Might that be of interest?’

‘Why the hell would anyone want to do that?’

‘It’s a long story.’ Virginia’s blonde hair fell forwards.  ’Suppose, ‘ she said, deftly tossing her hair back and looking straight into Algernon’s eyes, ‘I show you some of his stuff?  If you like it, I’ll tell you more, if you don’t, that’s the end of the matter.’

‘All very mysterious.’  Algernon sipped more of his wine, undressing Virginia slowly with his eyes and wondering why she looked faintly familiar. ‘Fine. I’ll take a look. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’

A week later a white van drew up and Virginia, looking incongruously immaculate,  stepped out.

‘I’ve half a dozen canvases in here, but don’t look yet.  Could someone carry them into the orangery?’

Once the paintings, each about six feet square, had been propped up around the walls of the orangery, Virginia, giggling like a mischievous school girl, produced a large handkerchief.  Standing on tiptoe, her breasts brushing lightly against Algernon’s back, she blindfolded him and led him by the hand into the orangery.  She spun him round three times and, with a flourish, whipped off the blindfold.

Algernon blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light. He was totally unprepared for the riot of colour that confronted him. The canvases, confident and bold, were of undulating landscapes, with huge trees and a dramatic use of light and shade.  Algernon sank into a nearby cane chair and gazed at the paintings in wonder.

‘Who did these?’

‘I knew you’d like them.  I just knew!’ exclaimed Virginia excitedly.

Algernon, mesmerised by the paintings and in no doubt that they were accomplished works of art, repeated his question, ‘But who did them?’

‘He’s a friend of a friend of mine and he can’t sell his stuff because he is serving a long prison sentence. He’s gay and unfortunately killed his partner, stabbed him through the heart with a kitchen knife during a lover’s tiff.  He claimed it was in self-defence but he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 20 years.’

‘And he wants me to sell his paintings in my gallery?’

‘Yes, his flat is full of unsold canvases and he is still painting. The prison governor is a bit of an admirer and has allowed him to set up a studio in a corner of the bricklaying workshop.’

‘But what’s the deal?  What does he want from each sale?  I obviously have to consider the reputational risk of exhibiting the work of a convicted murderer.’

‘Ah,’ said Virginia conspiratorially, ‘but no one would know.  He wants you to sign the paintings and exhibit them as your own.  All he wants is a flat rate of three thousand pounds for each painting you sell.’

Algernon shook his head in disbelief. ‘Weird. I’ll have to think about it.’

Over the next week, Algernon nipped into the orangery each day to gaze at the paintings and reassure himself that they were as good as he had initially judged them to be. The more he looked, the more certain he became that they were exceptional works of art.  He showed them to his latest live-in girlfriend and, unnecessarily professing she was no connoisseur, she too enthused about the paintings.

Algernon phoned Virginia.  ‘I’ve decided to give it a go. I’ll exhibit the canvases for a trial period, let’s say for a couple of months, without disclosing the artist’s identity and let’s see if we get any takers.’

So the paintings were moved from the orangery and hung in the gallery. The price tag for each was a speculative £10,000.

Within a few days there were two encouraging developments.

Firstly, a dealer snapped up a couple of the paintings and, having doubled the price, sold them on to a wealthy firm of solicitors with plush headquarters in Canary Wharf.  Miffed at losing out, Algernon immediately increased the asking price for each of the remaining canvases to £22,000.

Secondly, the gallery manager phoned Algernon to say that a reporter from the Daily Telegraph was in the gallery enquiring about the paintings.  Was it convenient for Algernon to have a word with her?

The woman, introducing herself as Rebecca Blain, explained that she was a freelance arts correspondent.  She’d been tipped off by the dealer who’d acquired the two canvases and, having seen the paintings for herself, wanted to write a feature about the artist for the Telegraph magazine.

‘They are amazing!’ she said, her eyes sparkling with enthusiasm as she gazed at the paintings. ‘I understand you are the artist?’

‘I’m so glad you like them,’ said Algernon, with an ostensibly modest shrug of the shoulders. ‘A bit of a departure for me, I’m experimenting with a new style.’

It was agreed that Rebecca would return in a few days, with a photographer, to interview Algernon.  He phoned Virginia with news of the latest development.

‘Wow, that’s wonderful!  Just the sort of publicity we need,’ she cooed.

True to her word, Rebecca returned, complete with a laptop, a small recording machine and a photographer who introduced herself as Jennifer.  Both women were young and attractive.  Rebecca wore a low cut white blouse giving Algernon tantalising glimpses of her cleavage as she leant forward setting up the recorder on the coffee table between them.

Meanwhile, Jennifer, in designer jeans stretching tight over her shapely bum, fussed around with a camera slung around her neck.  ‘Don’t mind me,’ she chuckled provocatively as she rearranged a large vase of lilies and consulted her light meter.

Algernon, basking in all the attention, waxed lyrical about his life as a hitherto undiscovered artist. He gave them a guided tour of his studio with both women admiring, and giggling suggestively, at his paintings of nude girlfriends. They visited the gallery in the tithe barn where Algernon posed in front of the canvases, each now signed ‘Alg’.  Jennifer, balancing precariously on a step ladder, took numerous photographs with Algernon joking that surely one would suffice.

A month later, as promised, Rebecca’s article appeared in the weekend Telegraph magazine.  Virginia phoned to congratulate Algernon on the double page spread and the footfall in the gallery immediately doubled.  Two more canvases were bought by a dealer who haggled, albeit half heartedly, over the price and the white van returned driven, to Algernon’s undisguised disappointment, by a burly male driver, delivering another batch of canvases from the mysterious artist.

Algernon painted ‘Alg’ in the bottom right hand corner of each painting and personally  supervised their hanging in the gallery, giving them prime position by removing some of his own paintings.  Then he sat back awaiting developments.

He didn’t have to wait long.  An email arrived from Virginia.

I realise this will come as a bit of a shock, but I’m writing to inform you that I intend to sue you for copyright infringement unless you pay me one million pounds. 

You have committed a serious criminal offence by misleading the public and passing off my artworks as your own.  Penalties if convicted are a prison sentence and an unlimited fine.  

Please confirm your acceptance of my terms within 48hrs or I shall instruct a leading barrister specialising in copyright law. 

This is non-negotiable and NOT a hoax.

Virginia

Algernon was aghast.  He showed the email to his mother. ‘That’s dreadful, dear, but you’ve only got yourself to blame, allowing yourself to be taken in by those silly girls.’

He phoned Virginia.  ‘Why?’ he wailed, feeling mighty sorry for himself.

‘Remember Samantha in Thailand?  The one you ditched as soon as she became pregnant?’

‘Samantha?’

‘Yes, she’s my twin sister and the money’s for her.’

Suddenly, Algernon knew why Virginia had always seemed vaguely familiar.

One comment

  1. Peter! Another great story. Love it!

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