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Keating was born in Lewisham, London, into a poor family. His father worked as a house painter, and barely made enough to feed the household. At the age of fourteen, Keating was turned away from St. Dunstan’s College in London. Because his father barely made ends meet, Keating started working at a young age. He worked as a delivery boy, a lather boy, a lift boy and a bell boy before he started working for the family business as a house painter. He was then enlisted as a boiler-stoker in World War II. After World War II, he was admitted into the art program at Goldsmith's College, University of London. However, he did not receive a diploma, as he dropped out after only two years at Goldsmith's College. In his college classes, his painting technique was praised, while his originality was regarded as insufficient. During Keating's two years at Goldsmith's College, he worked side jobs for art restorers. He even worked for the revered Hahn Brothers in Mayfair. Utilizing the skills he learned through these jobs, he began to restore paintings for a living, (although he also had to keep working 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.
In 1963, he met Jane Kelly who would become his lover and partner in spreading and selling his forgeries. However, they separated many years before they were put on trial for the forgeries.
He later married his wife, Hellen, from whom he also separated in his later years. They had a son named Douglas.
Keating studied at London’s National Gallery and the Tate.
After dropping out of college, Keating was picked up by an art restorer named Fred Roberts. Roberts cared less about the ethics of art restoration than other restorers Keating had previously worked for. One of Keating's first jobs was to paint children around a maypole on a 19th-century painting by Thomas Sidney Cooper that had a large hole in it. Most art restorers would have simply filled in the cracks to preserve the authenticity of the painting. His career of forgery stemmed in Robert's workshop when Keating talked down upon a painting done by Frank Moss Bennett. Robert challenged him to recreate one of Bennett's paintings. At first Keating produced replicas of Bennett paintings, but he felt he could do even more. Keating recalls feeling as if he knew so much about Bennett that he could start creating his own works and pass them off as Bennett's. Keating created his own Bennett-like piece, and was so proud of it, that he signed it with his own name. When Robert's saw it, without consulting Keating, he changed the signature to F.M. Bennett and consigned it to the West End gallery. Keating did not find out until later, but said nothing.
According to Keating's account, Jane Kelly was instrumental in circulating his forgeries in the art market. With Palmer being one of his biggest inspirations, he created nearly twenty fake Palmer's. Keating and Kelly then decided on the best three forgeries and Kelly took them to gallery specialists for auction.
In 1963, he started his own informal school, teaching teenagers painting techniques in exchange for tobacco or second-hand art books. This is where Keating, at the age of 46, met Jane Kelly, at the age of 16, a student of his. Kelly really enjoyed Keating's "class" and convinced her parents to pay Keating a pound/day for full-time instruction. She became especially attached to him and they ultimately became lovers and business partners. Four years later, the two began a life together in Cornwall, where they started an art restoration business.
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. Keating considered himself a socialist and used that mentality to rationalize his actions.
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.
In Keating's book, The Fake's Progress, he stated that "it seemed disgraceful to me how many of them died in poverty" (discussing the famous artists he forged). He reasoned that the poverty he had shared with these artists qualified him for the job. He added "I flooded the market with the 'work' of Palmer and many others, not for gain, but simply as a protest against the merchants who make capital out of those I am proud to call my brother artists, both living and dead."
Mastering an artists style and technique, as well as getting to know the artist very well, was a priority to Keating.
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 watercolours in the style of Samuel Palmer. To create a Palmer watercolor, Keating would mix the watercolor paints with glutinous tree gum, and cover the paintings with thick coats of varnish in order to get the right consistency and texture. 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.
Keating's "Sexton Blakes"
A sexton blake is a term coined in the UK from a fictional detective, comparable to Sherlock Holmes. The term transformed into meaning "rhyming slang", which is best explained by an example. In the UK, "apples and pears" meant stairs, and then the term "apples" changed into slang for stairs. However, over time this term became synonymous with "fake," and Keating coined all of his forgeries as Sexton Blakes.
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.
Geraldine Norman, the Times of London salesroom correspondent, looked into the 13 Palmer watercolors, sending them to be scientifically tested by a renowned specialist, Geoffrey Grigson. After careful inspection, she published an article declaring these "Palmers" to be fake. Norman was sent tips as to who forged these paintings, but it was not until Jane Kelly's brother met up with Norman and told her all about Keating, that she found out the truth. Soon after, she drove out to the house that Kelly's brother had told her about, and met Keating. Keating welcomed her inside and told her all about his life as a restorer and artist, not discussing his life as a forger. He also spent much of the time ranting about his fight against the art establishment as a working-class socialist. A little over a week after their meeting, The Times published an article written by Norman, writing about his life and the many allegations of forgery against him. In response, Keating wrote, "I do not deny these allegations. In fact, I openly confess to having done them." He also declared that money was not his incentive. Though Norman was the one to expose him, Keating did not feel resentment towards her. Instead he said that she was sympathetic, respectful of his radical politics, and appreciative of him as an artist.
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.
After Keating and Jane Kelly were finally arrested in 1977, and both accused of conspiracy to defraud and obtaining payments through deception amounting to £21,416. Kelly pleaded guilty, promising to testify against Keating. Conversely, Keating pleaded innocent, on the basis that he was never intending to defraud, rather he was simply working under the masters' guidance and in their spirit. The charges were eventually dropped due to his poor health after he was severely injured in a motorcycle accident. He then contracted bronchitis in the hospital, which was exacerbated by a heart ailment and pulmonary disease, leading the doctors to believe that he was not going to survive. The prosecutor dropped the case, declaring nolle prosequi. Since Kelly had already pleaded guilty, she still had to serve her time in prison. However, Keating served no time, and shortly after the charges were dropped, Keating's health improved. Soon after, Keating was asked to star in a television show about the techniques needed to paint like the masters.
The same year Keating was arrested (1977), 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. Nowadays, Keating's sell for tens of thousands of pounds.
Tom Keating on Painters (television show)
After Keating's legal suit was dropped, he was asked to star in a television show called Tom Keating on Painters. The show started airing in 1982 at 6:30 p.m. on weekdays to attract a family audience. On this show, Keating demonstrated how to paint like the masters, illustrating the techniques and processes of painting like artists, such as Titian, Rembrandt, Monet, and Constable.
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 post-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)
- "Tom Keating: Art Fraud". JAQUO Lifestyle Magazine. Retrieved 2016-04-15.
- 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.
- Keats, Jonathon. "Masterpieces For Everyone? The Case Of The Socialist Art Forger Tom Keating [Book Excerpt]". Forbes. Retrieved 2016-04-15.
- Keats, Jonathon. "The Ultimate In Reality TV? Try Televised Art Forgery. [Book Excerpt #2]". Forbes. Retrieved 2016-05-05.
- Longdon, David (5 August 2012). "Judas Unrepentant". David Longdon Blog. Retrieved 16 October 2013.