Kit Williams' Masquerade: The Full Story
February 20, 2010 1:22 AM   Subscribe

In 1979, British artist Kit Williams buried a golden hare in the UK countryside and published a book of painted clues detailing, for those clever enough to solve the riddle, the hare's whereabouts. Mefi's own Paul Slade shares the entire intriguing saga on his website, PlanetSlade. [via mefi projects]

In Paul's words: "In 1979 the British artist Kit Williams buried a golden hare somewhere in the UK countryside and published a book full of painted clues to its whereabouts. Masquerade sold over a million copies worldwide, sparked a global craze and brought Williams a quite unwelcome degree of fame. I've written about Masquerade for both The Idler and BBC Radio 4, and now I've posted an epic essay on my own website telling the whole story from Williams' original inspiration for the book to his surprise reunion with the hare 33 years later. Along the way, we'll pick apart the threads of whole 'Ken Thomas' affair and watch the curtain fall on Rod Argent's forgotten Masquerade musical."

Previously on Mefi: Last year Joe Beese had an excellent FPP on Masquerade and a new hunt spawned on its 30th anniversary. tellurian shared another of Paul's stories about an English treasure hunt gone awry.
posted by maxwelton (35 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I remember being so obsessed by this book - pouring over the incredible illustrations for hours. I never had any hope of solving the puzzle (I was a little too young to piece the clues together), but the depth of detail in the paintings and the quirky scenes had me hooked.

Another book in a similar vein was the Ultimate Alphabet: 24 paintings incorporating dozens of items linked to each letter of the alphabet (from actual objects having names starting with the letter, through to various representations of the letter: morse, semaphore, etc.) The challenge was to identify them all and win a prize. Beautiful paintings, and yet more hours of my youth spent staring at the pages of a book!
posted by copley at 1:45 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I remember this being announced and shared in women's magazines my neighbour would buy from the UK and Australia as the "saga of the golden hare" - so romantic to a 13 y.o.
posted by infini at 1:54 AM on February 20, 2010

Are you sure it wasn't a golden 'Hair' because that wouldn't be as exciting. Even if it was a really long one.
posted by milkwood at 1:57 AM on February 20, 2010

That was really well written, and worth the reading. Thanks Paul.
posted by Sova at 2:29 AM on February 20, 2010

that was a good read, thanks paul, thanks maxwelton.
posted by wilful at 4:00 AM on February 20, 2010

Kit Williams is a really facinating character. It's a real shame that the hunt for the golden hare didn't resolve in the intended manner.
posted by fire&wings at 4:32 AM on February 20, 2010

I had read about this in Smithsonian mag, or someplace else, as a young man. This was at a time in my life when, despite my circumstances, magic and wonder seemed to be lurking just under the surface of every. Just a few years later, in 1983, a teacher at my school produced a copy of a calendar for that year, with artwork chock full of clues and a reward of some kind. It was called The Chrysler Pentastar Challenge -- a slightly cheesier, corporate knock-off of Masquerade. We never solved the puzzle, and I can't find anything about its origins or if anyone ever did solve it. I still have my tattered calendar on my bookshelf next to Masquerade and Ultimate Alphabet. I still don't understand it.

Now it occurs to me that, like the secret message in A Christmas Story, the solution might only have awarded a discount on a K car. Moreover, it's part of me somehow just as it is, a riddle unsolved.
posted by SteelyDuran at 4:39 AM on February 20, 2010

...erm, "under the surface of every object and image and story," I meant. Don't know how that got eaten. Maybe by a grue!
posted by SteelyDuran at 4:41 AM on February 20, 2010

I remember reading this book when I was 8 or so, immediately realizing I had no chance whatsoever of solving the puzzle, and deciding to simply enjoy the story. Reading about the actual solution to the puzzle, I was completely right -- I would not have figured that out in a million years if I got the puzzle right now, much less when I was 8.

Sucks that the person who found it cheated.
posted by kyrademon at 5:58 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

This was one of my favorite books when I was a kid.
posted by keli at 6:12 AM on February 20, 2010

This documentary on the man himself is rather good too:
posted by debord at 6:14 AM on February 20, 2010

A good reference for Masquerade is Bamber Gascoigne's book, the Quest for the Golden Hare, which is a very readable account of the whole hunt, solution, and various intrigues.

Masquerade was the inspiration for Perplex City, and we did a lot of research on how it ran. What I found interesting was that several treasure hunts came soon after Masquerade, often offering much larger prizes (up to a million pounds, IIRC); of course, none had anywhere near the success or popularity of Masquerade, showing quite plainly that the actual size of the prize has very little influence on the hunt's success (or, of course, quality).
posted by adrianhon at 6:40 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

90 85 16 10 85!
posted by Alison at 7:03 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cadbury got in on the act too.
posted by the cuban at 8:01 AM on February 20, 2010

seems the thread has brought out the 40-somethings :) i was about 9 years old in 79 and we had a copy of the book. same here - i could have never solved it but i was fascinated by it and spent hours looking at the pictures, just trying to get a clue. off to read the article.
posted by joeblough at 8:04 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Man I spentmonths trying to figure out that riddle and even submitted a solution at 12 years old. Needless to say, I was wrong. Thanks for the memories.
posted by pashdown at 8:10 AM on February 20, 2010

Epic indeed! Nice work.

And seconding QftGH - which is sadly out of print even in the UK, apparently. I cherish this bit from Bambi's introduction:

It did not occur to me then that I was stepping into a passive but central role in an international obsession, as one of the only two people in the world in possession of a secret wanted desperately by hundreds of thousands of adventurers. If I had thought of the possibilities of violence I might well have said no (but then if I had thought of the possibilities of bribery I might well have said yes). In the event neither was offered, during the entire two and a half years that the hare remained in the ground. This must be a more gentle and honest world than we are led to believe.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:24 AM on February 20, 2010

a hopper of ditches
a cropper of corn
a little brown deer
with leathery horn
posted by oneirodynia at 9:09 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's a fantastic story for a fantastic puzzle book. I've always intended to actually own a copy of Masquerade eventually; the solving method is one of the first puzzles I can remember reading about that made me think 'this is really inventive' and I'm sure my interest in puzzles stems in some small part from this.
posted by flatluigi at 9:16 AM on February 20, 2010

And I know it doesn't really compare, but I've found some of the same inventiveness in Cliff Johnson's older games entitled The Fool's Errand and 3 In Three, while the kids over at MIT frequently get elaborate in the puzzles made for the MIT Mystery Hunt (see archives for older puzzles).
posted by flatluigi at 9:20 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

A 2009 documentary about this hit the torrent sites (an MVgroup release I think) a while back... There's a little more info on docuwiki.
posted by glider at 9:43 AM on February 20, 2010

Wow. It's like Books Ghidorah Carried Back To Japan Month. Masquerade was one of my favorite books as a kid, and I would pick it up, read it, finish it, then read it again. The ending line is so simple, but even now (when I just ran upstairs to double check it), it carries so much resonance for me.

posted by Ghidorah at 9:55 AM on February 20, 2010

ja, as it does right now for me.
posted by infini at 10:45 AM on February 20, 2010

I remember our school librarian doing a presentation on this book when I was about 9 years old (we didn't actually get a copy) and feeling really excited, like, "oh, that's why I go to school." I thought my whole academic and adult life was going to be like that, romantic and complicated and secret and occasionally grimy, solving puzzles.

It was disappointing to find out that too many people in charge of teaching - the ones who should be the most free to torment and delight the mind - were more interested in getting the day over with than in creating better and better puzzles.

I loved reading this - thanks.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:14 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

This book was a child favourite of mine, also. I would look at the pictures for ages. They're so well drawn. There was recently a very good programme from the BBC which was about Kit Williams in the past and present. It's a shame that foreigners can't use iPlayer.
posted by jpcooper at 11:15 AM on February 20, 2010

Wasn't there a book like this in the US popular around the mid 80s called "Treasure" or something like that? With a golden horse? I have these memories of spending hours studying the book in my local B Dalton's. Everytime this Masquerade book comes up, I wonder if that's what I am recalling (but it was a horse!) or if there was some other version/copy-cat.
posted by Mid at 11:16 AM on February 20, 2010

Just another Masquerade fan. This was a really fun book to read and stare at for hours and hours. I still have my copy.
posted by JBennett at 1:46 PM on February 20, 2010

Are you sure it wasn't a golden 'Hair' because that wouldn't be as exciting. Even if it was a really long one.

I thought pretty much every production of Hair was golden and quite exciting. Except the movie. What a misstep THAT was.
posted by hippybear at 2:03 PM on February 20, 2010

Mid, is this what you're thinking of? I remember this very well, A friend of mine, JJ Palencar, was the illustrator. I remember when he started working on it, we were just out of college and he was really secretive about the paintings.
posted by Mcable at 2:08 PM on February 20, 2010

So I am reading the article with great interest because I remembered the search for the hare from my childhood. My boyfriend comes into the room, and I ask him if he remembers Masquerade. "Not only do I remember it, Kit Williams was sitting exactly where you are on this very couch."

Bf's parents lived in London for many years before returning to New York, and were very good friends with Eric Lister, the founder of The Portal Gallery (mentioned in the article). When Masquerade was released in the US, Lister accompanied Williams to NYC to promote the book. They stopped by to visit and have lunch with the parents, and my boyfriend was there too. He remembers Williams as a quiet guy wearing corduroy pants and sandals. He also thinks we have signed copy of the book somewhere in the apartment. So now I am off on my own treasure hunt!
posted by kimdog at 3:26 PM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

"Seems the thread has brought out the 40-somethings :)"

Sh!t, no.
Am I?

Great book, blended art & reason, magic and logic effortlessly.
posted by BadMiker at 3:41 PM on February 20, 2010

@BadMiker: i know. in my mind i'm still about 20 years old, so its okay. but other people must think i'm ridiculous.
posted by joeblough at 4:49 PM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

but other people must think i'm ridiculous.

to hell with them. literalists.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:51 PM on February 20, 2010

I used to love that book. And now, when I'm all grown up I design treasure hunts for a hobby.
posted by gonzo_ID at 1:27 AM on February 21, 2010

The late 70s / early 80s was a great period for children's illustration -- not just Kit Williams, but Nicola Bayley, Mike Wilks .. all of them discovered by Tom Maschler and published by Jonathan Cape. There are lots of good picture-books being published today, but not at the same level of sheer eye-popping visual gorgeousness.

It's always puzzled me that Williams, after his brief period of fame, published just one more book and then largely disappeared from public view. It sounds from this profile as though he just got sick of being a celebrity:

His hermit-like existence, refusing all requests for interviews or gallery shows, “has kept me alive”, he said. He paints brightly coloured imaginative scenes, mostly featuring his neighbours with no clothes on. Once a year he opens up his home to a handful of local buyers. None of his paintings made since Masquerade is owned by galleries and he has no intention of changing that.

“I have no need to advertise and a policy of zero publicity,” he said. “I hope I can go back to that now.”

posted by verstegan at 5:36 AM on February 21, 2010

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