Spring 1982, two Physics professors stand in an open field, one leans on a shovel as the other points to a statue atop a hill as the sun reaches a specific point in the sky, casting a long shadow that looks like a finger pointing to something. They have followed the instructions the small furry animal gave them, to the letter, they were led to this location, to this buried treasure. This is not an extract from a C.S. Lewis novel, this is the true story of the Masquerade Hare, a fascinating story of art, mystery, deception, love, modern folklore and the spawning of a new genre…the armchair treasure hunt.
In the mid 70’s struggling artist Kit Williams was approached by publishing firm Jonathon Cape with a commission of producing a picture book for children. Williams was a very talented artist and had a passion for creating illustrations of immense, intricate detail, with a depth that echoed the styles of Hieronymous Bosch and Salvador Dalí. However, he had grown tired of children casting a second’s glance over his images before turning the page. He was struck by the desire to do ‘something completely different’ and introduce a narrative into his images that would lure the reader into the frame and hold them there.
It was at this time the concept of ‘Masquerade’ was born. Williams encoded a secret message inside the frames of 15 beautiful, detailed templates accompanied by the story of a hare named Jack Hare. Both the images and the story are steeped in traditional British folklore that resonant with the reader in a way that only ancient stories can. Jack the Hare was a messenger, between the feminine moon and the masculine sun, although it is not included in this story, there are multiple examples of the moon and sun being lovers across cultures. It is a common narrative that the moon and sun were in love, in varying versions this was forbidden and they were forced to never see each other again which is why they chase each other through night and day, desperate to reunite. In Williams story, Jack the Hare is to take a gift from the moon to the sun but on his journey it is lost..
This is where the arm chair treasure hunting genre is conceptualised. Williams tasked his readers with finding the gift which actually existed in real life and was buried somewhere in England. Tom Maschler of Jonathon Cape publishers was somewhat surprised when Williams got in touch three years after they had discussed the commission to say, it was finished, “what’s finished, I thought. I had almost forgotten.” At this point Williams asked for an advance on the books profits, which he was given. He used all the money to buy gold and began crafting a spectacular 18 carat Golden Hare, the Masquerade Hare, decorated with ornate trinkets and details, that sparkled and chimed. It was a real life treasure, and so, he sealed it in a ceramic casket to prevent metal detectors picking it up and buried it in the location he had encoded in his book, then went back to his cottage in Gloucestershire to wait for letters from readers who would guess its location.
The letters came, then some more, it soon became clear that the book and the hunt had ignited something in the public’s imagination. The publishers were thrilled to be unable to cope with demand and ordered more copies to be printed in Germany, Italy, Australia, the US and even Japan where it was called 仮面舞踏会 kamenbutoukai. They were distributed worldwide, although the treasure was buried in England, Williams promised readers that if they posted him the correct location and showed how they had solved the riddle he would pay for their flights to come and dig it up. A generation were enraptured with this real life treasure hunt and spent months, then years studying the images which were steeped in folklore and symbolism.
“To solve the hidden riddle,
you must use your eyes.
And find the hare in every picture,
that may point you to the prize.”
However, with riddles, all is never as it seems. In March 1982 Williams received a letter from Ken Thomas containing a crude map showing the exact location of the treasure with no solution attached. It had been over two years since the book was first published and he had received thousands of letters and read every single one, although there was no solution provided, this was the first to show the correct location and Williams was overjoyed that the hunt had finally come to an end and the Hare would be freed from its tomb. Although, Ken Thomas was not Ken Thomas, his real name was Dugald Thompson, he was using an assumed name because he had not followed the hare to the prize at all but used more clandestine measures. Dugald had already been looking for buyers in the US and had little interest in the legacy of the hunt. Williams wouldn’t see his creation again until they were briefly reunited in 2018.
The true identity of Dugald Thompson wasn’t revealed until 1988 when the whole story would be uncovered as his company went into liquidation. He had formed a software company called Haresoft using the Masquerade Hare as a prize for anyone who completed it, the game called ‘Hareraiser’ is considered to be one of the worst games ever produced, a failed attempt at building on the Masquerade Hare treasure hunt legacy. He was forced to sell the Hare at Sotheby’s to cover the costs of his failed business venture. The Hare sold for £31,900, Williams attended and even bid but was unable to go beyond £6,000.
Dugald had befriended Williams ex-girlfriend who had been living with him at the time he produced the Masquerade concept. Months after they separated she was searching a field in Ampthill where she believed the Hare may have been buried but to no avail. Dugald encouraged her to renew her efforts and they found the Hare days after it had already been dug up by Physics professors Mike Barker and John Rousseau. The pair had sent a letter to Williams detailing their correct solution and the location, unfortunately he would receive Dugald’s letter days before. The professors actually dug the Hare up but mud surrounded the ceramic container and they threw it to one side, Dugald claimed it later that day.
The Hunt ended but Williams’ work continued, he produced a second book which was untitled, the goal of the book this time was to find the title hidden within the images and send him a letter without using words, explaining the title to win a golden bee. Williams continues to produce inspiring images overloaded with symbology and storytelling strokes to this very day.
See the full story of the hunt and scandal (contains solution)
A documentary on Kit Williams and his work