Gold in the Hills: ‘Masquerade’ by Kit Williams, 1979

Exhibit / June 7, 2017

Object Name: Masquerade
Maker and Year: Kit Williams, Jonathan Cape, 1979 
Object Type: Book
Image Source: World of SpectrumPictures from an Old Book
Description: (Richard McKenna)

In 1979, British artist Kit Williams published Masquerade, a picture book telling the whimsical story of a hare who loses the precious jewel entrusted to him by the sun. The book contained clues to the location of a golden pendant in the form of a hare that had been buried at a secret location and was worth, at the time of Masquerade‘s release, £5,000.

The Yorkshire Ripper was still at large and, against a background of recession and ongoing industrial action (the”winter of discontent“), Britain had just returned the Conservatives to government: the mood of the country was tense and there was an appetite for distraction. The counterculture of the previous years had engendered a new interest in nature and the “unspoiled” pre-industrial world, and after the release the previous year of the animated film version of Richard Adam’s traumatizing 1972 rabbit odyssey Watership Down (and Bright Eyesthe Mike Batt-penned Art Garfunkel single from its soundtrack, which spent six weeks in the number one position of the UK charts), the Leporidae family were firmly at the forefront of British national preoccupations. The artwork of Williams—whose symbolist paeans to the British countryside sprang from the same naive-bucolic tradition that had produced the Brotherhood of Ruralists—and Masquerade‘s hint of Arts-and-Craftsy olde-worlde intrigue immediately entranced and obsessed the country, to the extent that the book was soon being blamed for the digging up of parks and fields by avid treasure hunters.

Masquerade sold 2,000,000 copies worldwide, with translated versions appearing in many other countries, including Italy, where it was adapted to lead to the location of a parallel prize. The tens of thousands of letters Williams received from treasure-hunters included one from a priest asking him to confirm that Masquerade contained no hidden occult messages.

The hare was eventually located in 1982 by one “Ken Thomas,” whose real name, it later emerged, was actually Dugald Thompson. According to Williams’ celebrity witness Bamber Gascoigne (the presenter of student TV quiz show  University Challenge who later published his own account of events, Quest for the Golden Hare), many of those seeking the pendant refused to believe that their own theories were flawed and continued to search even after it had been found.

Hoping to cash in on the then-booming market for computer games, Thompson used the hare as collateral to found the software company Haresoft in 1984, immediately releasing the two-part puzzle game Hareraiser for home computers, including the ZX Spectrum, Oric Atmos, and Dragon 32. The prize was the Masquerade jewel—although this time it was not buried, so as “to avoid desecration of the countryside.” Simplistic and repetitive, the game was roundly derided in the specialist press and flopped, and Haresoft went into receivership.

In 1988, it was revealed that Thompson had actually located the golden pendant with the help of his business partner, at that time in a relationship with Williams’ former girlfriend, who had allegedly hoped to use the proceeds to fund her animal rights activism. The real discoverers of the pendant’s location were two teachers who, while digging for it, had overlooked the jar containing the pendant that was later recovered by Thompson. Williams’ former girlfriend denied the accusations and, years later, Thompson would claim that it had been the publisher’s idea for him to claim the prize under a false name. The purity of the concept was irremediably sullied. In December of 1988, the hare was auctioned off, selling to an unknown buyer for £31,900.

The same year that Thompson “found” the hare, Rod Argent—founder and ex-keyboardist of ground-breaking British rock bands The Zombies and Argent—produced a musical based on the book that ran for 31 performances at London’s Young Vic Theatre and starred Sarah Brightman, vocalist of “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper,” a 1978 hit single designed to cash in on the post-Star Wars science fiction craze.

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