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Keating was born in Lewisham, London, into a poor family. After World War II, he began to restore paintings for a living, although he also worked as a house-painter to make ends meet. He exhibited his own paintings, but failed to break into the art market. In order to prove himself as good as his heroes, Keating began painting in the style of them, especially Samuel Palmer.
He had a wife, Hellen, from whom he separated in his later years. They had a son named Douglas.
Forger with a cause
Keating perceived the gallery system to be rotten – dominated, he said, by American "avant-garde fashion, with critics and dealers often conniving to line their own pockets at the expense both of naïve collectors and [of] impoverished artists". Keating retaliated by creating forgeries to fool the experts, hoping to destabilize the system.
He planted 'time-bombs' in his products. He left clues of the paintings' true nature for fellow art restorers or conservators to find. For example, he might write text onto the canvas with lead white before he began the painting, knowing that x-rays would later reveal the text. He deliberately added flaws or anachronisms, or used materials peculiar to the twentieth century. Modern copyists of old masters use similar practices to guard against accusations of fraud.
Keating's preferred approach in oil painting was a Venetian technique inspired by Titian's practice, although modified and fine-tuned along Dutch lines. The resultant paintings, while time-consuming to execute, have a richness and subtlety of colour and optical effect, and a variety of texture and depth of atmosphere unattainable in any other way. Unsurprisingly, his favourite artist was Rembrandt.
For a 'Rembrandt', Keating might make pigments by boiling nuts for ten hours and filtering the result through silk; such colouring would eventually fade, while genuine earth pigments would not. As a restorer he knew about the chemistry of cleaning-fluids; so, a layer of glycerine under the paint layer ensured that when any of his forged paintings needed to be cleaned (as all oil paintings need to be, eventually), the glycerin would dissolve, the paint layer would disintegrate, and the painting – now a ruin – would stand revealed as a fake.
Occasionally, as a restorer, he would come across frames with Christie's catalogue numbers still on them. To help in establishing false provenances for his forgeries, he would call the auction house to ask whose paintings they had contained – and would then paint the pictures according to the same artist's style.
Keating also produced a number of watercolors in the style of Samuel Palmer, and oil paintings by various European masters, including François Boucher, Edgar Degas, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Thomas Gainsborough, Amedeo Modigliani, Rembrandt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Kees van Dongen.
Revealing the forger
In 1970, auctioneers noticed that there were thirteen Samuel Palmer watercolour paintings for sale – all of them depicting the same theme, the town of Shoreham. When an article published in The Times discussed the auctioneer's suspicions about their provenance, Keating confessed that they were his. He also estimated that more than 2,000 of his forgeries were in circulation. He had created them, he declared, as a protest against those art traders who get rich at the artist's expense. He also refused to list the forgeries.
Keating was finally arrested in 1977, and accused of conspiracy to defraud. That same year, he published his autobiography with Geraldine and Frank Norman. The case was dropped, owing to his bad health. Years of chain smoking and the effects of breathing in the fumes of chemicals used in art restoring, such as ammonia, turpentine and methyl alcohol, together with the stress induced by the court case, had taken their toll. Through 1982 and 1983 Keating rallied, however, and although in fragile health, he presented television programmes on the techniques of old masters for Channel 4 in the UK.
A year before he died in Colchester at the age of 66, Keating stated in a television interview, that, in his opinion, he was not an especially good painter. His proponents would disagree. Keating is buried in the churchyard of the parish church of St Mary the Virgin at Dedham (a scene painted numerous times by Sir Alfred Munnings), and his last painting, The Angel of Dedham, is to be found in the Muniment Library of the church.
Even when he was alive, many art collectors and celebrities, such as the ex-heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper, had begun to collect Keating's work. After his death, his paintings became increasingly valuable collectibles. In the year of his death, Christie's auctioned 204 of his works. The amount raised from the auction was not announced, but it is said to have been considerable. Even his known forgeries, described in catalogues as "after" Gainsborough or Cézanne, attain high prices.
In popular culture
The fourth track, titled "Judas Unrepentant", on progressive rock band Big Big Train's 2012 album English Electric (Part One) is based on the life of Keating as an artist. According to the blog of Big Big Train vocalist David Longdon, the song walks through Keating's artistic life from his time as a restorer to his death and posthumous fame.
- Tom Keating, Geraldine Norman and Frank Norman, The Fake's Progress: The Tom Keating Story, London: Hutchinson and Co., 1977.
- Associated Press obituary for Tom Keating
- Keats, Jonathon, Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age, New York: Oxford University Press., 2013. (Excerpt on Tom Keating published by Forbes, December 13, 2012)
- MacGillivray, Donald (2 July 2005). "When is a fake not a fake? When it's a genuine forgery". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 31 December 2010.
- Longdon, David (5 August 2012). "Judas Unrepentant". David Longdon Blog. Retrieved 16 October 2013.