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Hare-brained: Kit Williams' Masquerade

By Paul Slade
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Murder Ballads
Secret London

The TV footage shows Kit Williams pulling up in front of London's Durrants Hotel in a smart black Range Rover. He climbs out of the back, walks through the lobby to the hotel's wood-panelled Armfield Room and sits at a table there. Waiting for him is a flat red box, about eight inches square, with the lid closed to conceal its contents.
He opens the box, removes a layer of protective bubble-wrap, and lifts out a gold medallion which he suspends in front of his face by its chain. The medallion is just over five inches long and shaped like a trotting hare, its outstretched body filled with a swirl of intricate gold filigree. A tiny bell dangles from each of he hare's feet, flanking the splayed frog and smiling sun which hang from the its belly. Its eye, a tiny ruby, glints red for a second as it catches the light.
Laying the medallion flat on the table before him, Williams attaches a jeweller's eyepiece to one lens of his glasses and bends for a closer look. “I recognise my work in the way a mother would recognise her babies,” he says. “There we are: ‘KW’ in a circle, a crown for gold - ‘750’, which is 18 carat gold. Yes. Well, that's it. What a nice thing to see again. I thought I'd never, ever see that again.” (1)

‘I thought it'd be nice to really, really bury treasure - to actually put gold in the cold, wet earth’

The hare had endured a long, strange journey to make this reunion possible. Beginning life in Williams' Gloucestershire workshop in 1979, it had since spent 30 months buried in a park near Bedford, sparked a global craze among the world's treasure hunters and sold over a million books. It had launched a scandal when it was finally found, been sold in a bankruptcy auction at Sotheby's and found itself spirited overseas by an anonymous buyer. Not one, but two BBC documentaries were required to bring the hare back home and let Williams hold it again in the Summer of 2009.
The artist hadn't seen his creation for over 20 years by then, and had long since given up any hope of ever finding it again. And yet, here they were in the same room. “It was like an apprentice piece,” he told BBC Four's cameras. “I made it because I was no-one going nowhere. And then I made this thinking 'This is something really special'. And it turned out that way. I'm a little bit overwhelmed to see it again.”
The story of how the hare found its way back to Williams relies on a string of lucky chances - one of which I was able to play a part in myself. Before we come to that, though, let's remind ourselves why it was worth running to ground in the first place.

Williams began his career as a professional artist after winning the John Moores Exhibition prize in 1972, making his first sale through London's Portal Gallery that same year and holding his own shows there every year or two for the rest of the decade.
His paintings - then, as now - were full of meticulously-detailed flora and fauna from the British countryside. He filled these scenes with naked women and cheeky old men, infusing the fecund fields and woods around them with a sense of folkloric romance and innocent sexuality. He was equally skilled at crafting ingenious three-dimensional objects, such as the fiendishly complex puzzle box, full of hidden compartments and trick releases, which he made to impress the Portal's Eric Lister.
Tom Maschler, then the chairman of publishers Jonathan Cape, saw one of Williams' pictures at the gallery and thought the painter would be a good candidate for an illustrated children's book. With the help of Lister, he engineered a lunch invitation, and the two men set off to visit the artist in March 1976. Williams showed them more of his paintings, and Maschler produced a copy of Nicola Bayley's Tyger Voyage, a beautiful children's book which Cape had just made a best-seller. Would Williams be interested in doing something like that himself?
Williams replied that he had no interest in a project like that whatsoever. Unlike his paintings - each of which he could begin afresh with a whole new subject - illustrating a children's book would mean painting the same characters again and again, and that was a job that would bore him silly. Even Maschler's suggestion that Williams could write the book as well as illustrate it failed to move him. “I found myself apologising, and dropped the subject until I left,” Maschler recalls in his 2005 memoirs. “Then I could not resist saying ‘It's a pity about the book. You could have produced a book like no other. A book that would have caught the imagination of the world. But never mind.’ We drove back to London, and I thought that was that.” (2)
If Maschler had planned that parting shot as a deliberate stratagem, then it was a highly effective one. The suggestion appealed to Williams' ego, and he found it impossible to dismiss from his mind. “The publisher told me ‘I think you could do something that no-one's ever done before’,” he told Start The Week's Richard Baker in 1982. “And it was that that got me.” (3)
If Williams was going to spend the time needed to paint every illustration for a full children's book, he reasoned, he wanted to be damn sure the art would get more than a cursory glance. “I thought ‘Right! There should be something hidden in the pictures’,” he explained. “That way, instead of saying ‘This is art, ’ I can say ‘This is a puzzle’. And they look at it not because it's art - they're not frightened by any art in the thing - they're looking for something else. They're looking for a puzzle. It's sort of like going in through the back door.” (4)
“It was a solution to a problem,” he added when talking to Baker. “If I'm going to paint for three years solid and put all this work into it [...] I've got to make people stop and look, and look again and look again.”
Williams spent the next few weeks gradually slotting ideas together in his mind. If the book was going to be a puzzle, he decided, then there should be a real prize at the end of it - and that prize should be genuine buried treasure. He was determined not to produce the same disappointment he'd felt as a child, when the cereal packet's promise of “buried treasure” turned out to be something as mundane as a cheap transistor radio sent by post. “I thought it'd be nice to really, really, bury treasure,” he told Radio 4's Profile. “Actually put gold in the cold, wet earth.”
The next step was to work out the bare bones of Masquerade's story. Williams concocted a tale of a love token passed from the Moon to the Sun, using Jack Hare as her messenger. Somewhere along the way, Jack would lose the jewel he had been entrusted with, and it would be the readers' job to find it.

Contest's finale is curtains for Argent's musical

The Young Vic's Masquerade musical looked all set for a West End transfer when the hare was unearthed in March 1982.
      “We had a full house every night for three weeks,” Rod Argent, the show's composer, said. “And we had some great feedback. But without the added bonus of the jewel not having been found, it made it quite hard to have it rooted in anything, you know? That did seem to make a big difference.”(10)
      In the end, the musical ran for another two weeks after the hare's discovery, but then closed with all hopes of a bigger theatre forgotten.
      Argent penned his first international hit at the tender age of 19, when his band The Zombies made She's Not There a US number 3 in 1964. More hits followed with his next band Argent - including Hold Your Head Up's UK number 5 - but then he was ready to try something new. “Argent split up in 1975, and I deliberately wanted to move into different musical fields,” he told me. “I just wanted to spread my wings a bit - write for television, films and produce other artists. So that's more or less where I was when the Masquerade musical came about,”
      In 1980, Kit Williams had sold Masquerade's musical rights to Hit & Run Music, a company owned by the rock band Genesis. Tony Smith, the band's manager was given the job of finding someone to write songs for a Masquerade show.
      The first idea was to use many different songwriters, each of whom would contribute one number to the finished show. “That seemed a crazy idea right off the bat,” Argent said. “To make a musical work, you've got to have some sort of continuity of idea and story.

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