Tom Keating on Painters

Written by Darby Milbrath for Issue 20

 In August, I was living alone and painting on an old dairy farm. When painting wasn’t going well or coming easily, my boyfriend sent me a link to a video that he thought would be helpful: Tom Keating on Painters – “Vincent Van Gogh.” It was a show on how to rip off a master painter in 30 minutes. The program first aired in 1982 at 6:30 pm on weekdays, to attract a family audience, with Tom Keating, a famous British art forger, illustrating the techniques and processes of artists such as Titian, Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne. Each episode begins with an animated sketch of the artist painting with his smock and palette to a romantic theme song made by the same composer who arranged the themes for Gone with the Wind and Great Expectations. The artist’s signature, Tom Keating appears in a gold gilded frame, his cursive handwriting indicates a jolly optimism with the decorative letter “K”, its leg like a coat-tail, and a hurried, carelessness with its crossed “T” dashing off ahead, and an all-around old world romanticism to its right-leaning slant. The camera pans to him in his studio, set up with a somewhat drab but cheerful still life of what appears to be handmade artificial sunflowers and magazine cut-outs of Japanese prints.

“This week we would like to talk a little of the artist Vincent Van Gogh and show you a little of his techniques.” Keating looks a bit like a teddy bear. “I have here a made up still life,” he says sort of apologetically. “And of course this is not naughty,” he emphasizes, “because the old masters always used artificial flowers if they were taking a long time.” 

After about fifteen seconds of this, he begins quickly blocking in his canvas with yellow ochre, while he goes on unscripted to tell the audience about Van Gogh’s life. Watching this episode midday, lying on the mattress on my floor, was the first and only art training I’ve ever had. I’ve never seen anyone paint like that before: haste verging on debauchery. He blobs the paint on his canvases confidently, with big brushes to save time. “Don’t want to muck about,” he says.

Tom Keating after Degas

Tom Keating after Renoir

Without utilizing special effects, Keating endeavoured to begin and finish an entire painting within the episode. Whenever he speaks about the masters taking years to complete the paintings that he bangs out in the thirty minute program, he’ll always humbly remind the audience: “Of course it’s easy to copy a thing, I mean no disrespect to the artists, thank you very much.” In other episodes, his paintings of portraits—while starting out fairly distinguishable—often lose even the basic appearance of a figure. In the episode on Renoir, he describes how the painting, “will come to you and leave you,” with a single brushstroke, “like love,” he says. “And that’s the beauty of it.” Often Keating’s voice will grow softer as he describes brushstrokes as “kisses,” demonstrating how to “caress the flesh” while painting the inner thigh of a nude in a near-lusty whisper. Keating teaches viewers how to paint Degas’ “sweetie-pies” as he calls them, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, and Turner’s ships. While he paints Turner’s fluffy clouds in thick impasto he explains: “It comes from years of buttering bread…or margarine in my case.” Keating’s plainspoken techniques demystify painting. Each episode, while hurriedly painting, he speaks about the artist’s life as if they’re an old friend, using their first names familiarly and regularly muttering apologies to the audience about how poorly a job he’s doing, or how the old master would’ve done it much better. “Of course I don’t find painting easy,” he admits. Despite his confidence before the easel and his irreverent attitude toward the art world, Keating often made self-degrading comments throughout his TV program. Apparently his ratings were almost as high as Civilisation, the late-60s BBC series of art historian Lord Kenneth Clark. Clark was a lord, a director of the National Art Gallery and a professor at Oxford. Keating was a house painter, a true Cockney, a fake who destabilized institutionalized art, only dodging criminal charges due to poor health.

Keating painted more than 2,000 forgeries by over 100 different artists in his sixty-six years. Many had fraudulently sold at auctions with the total profits estimated at over 10 million dollars. “I flooded the market with the work of Palmer and many others,” the artist said. “Not for gain (I hope I am no materialist) 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. It seemed disgraceful to me how many of them had died in poverty,” he defended in The Fake’s Progress, his autobiography. “All their lives they had been exploited by unscrupulous dealers and then, as if to dishonor their memory, these same dealers continued to exploit them in death.” As with other art forgers like Han van Meegeren and Elmyr de Hory, resentment was one of Keating’s motives to retaliate against the art world.  “I was determined to do what I could to avenge my brothers and it was to this end that I decided to turn my hand to ‘Sexton Blaking’.” He called all his phoney pictures “Sexton Blakes,” Cockney slang for fakes.

Keating was born into a low-income family in a poor neighborhood in South London. His father was a house painter. His family couldn’t afford to give Tom a proper education so instead he began working at a young age as a delivery boy, a lather boy, a lift boy, and a bell boy before working for the family business painting houses. “I’ll do a bit of house painting,” he jokes in the episode on Degas, as he paints the walls of the dance studio in pale greens. Grumbling, he says, “Now step back, see what you’ve done, shudder, and carry on.” He was later enlisted as a boiler-stoker in World War II. After military service he was admitted into the art programme at Goldsmiths, University of London as a rehabilitation course and “to get a bit of taste,” as he later phrased it.

He didn’t last two years in school, dropping out because of the “humiliating” cultural rift separating him from the upper class. Although he got high marks on technique, he was criticized for lacking originality. He ended up getting a job as an art restorer and learned the painstaking techniques of matching colours and varnishes and repairing cracks and crevices. He began working with a less ethical art restorer, Fred Roberts, who wasn’t concerned with preserving the integrity of the artist. On one occasion, after Roberts filled a large hole in a landscape painting by the 19th century Royal Academician Thomas Sidney Cooper that had been blown out from shrapnel during the war, he suggested that Keating paint the gap and brighten up the pasture with children encircling a maypole. “It was a naughty thing to do,” Keating later admitted, “but the alternative was filling in cracks. More than anything else in the world I wanted to paint and I didn’t care what it was that I painted.” Roberts once challenged Keating to make a replica of a Frank Moss Bennett, a quaint British painter whose wintry scenes decorated stationary and calendars. Keating made a couple of replicas and then thought he knew so much of the artist he could create a new scene from his head. The finished painting so impressed Roberts that he rubbed out Keating’s signature and signed it F.M. Bennett, 1937. Without telling Keating or sharing the profits, he sold the fake to a gallery where Keating saw it hung in the window.  “I was astonished to discover, as I looked around, that hanging on the walls were quite a number of the paintings that I’d prettied up with boating scenes, little girls with ribbons in their hair and other additions to make them more saleable,” claimed Keating in retrospect. “I wondered, as I stood there, how many other dealers went in for this kind of deception.”

Keating saw the gallery system to be rotten, dominated by “avant-garde fashion, with critics and dealers often conniving to line their own pockets at the expense both of naive collectors and impoverished artists.” Tom moved into a decrepit flat with no furniture, which doubled as a studio, and began scouring the London junk shops for old canvases and cheap materials to continue making his “Sexton Blakes.” Keating never actually copied the masters’ work, he simply painted in imitation of their style. This method of inventing new pictures, which demands creativity and a greater understanding of the artist, pleased Keating’s painterly ambitions very much. Keating had a great respect and understanding of all the artists he imitated but was always reckless in his handling of the materials. He often used house paint and poster paint to mix in with his acrylics as a cheaper way to achieve the impasto works. At times he wouldn’t bother preparing his antique canvases he found at the junk shops out of laziness, so that in just a few years the paint would peel right off to reveal what was originally underneath. Keating often planted what he called “time bombs” like this in his paintings. Because of his understanding of the chemicals used in art restoration, Keating would purposely paint with layers of glycerin, which would destroy the painting once it was cleaned by a restorer, proving it was a fake. He often wrote obscenities under his paintings, like “Bollocks!”, in lead white so that it could be seen by the experts who x-rayed the painting to check its authenticity. These little acts of trickery and self-sabotage were a way for him to offset the whole operation from leaning too far towards capitalism.

Tom Keating after Monet

Tom Keating after Renoir

He claimed to have never signed any of his sextons and always pointed to the corruption of the art world when questioning how they all happened to be signed eventually as fakes. Apparently he sold his works for under 50$ a piece. “Many I just gave away to friends or acquaintances. I’ve never had much lolly [money], never owned a car in me life, never owned anything much at all. That’s the only way to keep sane, you know.” Keating was a bit of a superstitious spiritualist. There are accounts where Keating claims he was channeling the old masters. For instance, there was a Degas pastel he had done that he felt Degas himself had painted. Keating described this in a 77’ Maclean’s interview called “The Magnificent Fraud.” “It was in 1956 I think, and I was experiencing ghosts—a terrifying experience—the first psychic experience I ever had. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but Degas really did draw that picture through me and many others besides,” he claimed. “I woke up one morning and found it on the easel, in place of the scratchy, silly daub that I’d been working on the day before.” He apparently took the drawing once it was passed off as “real” by many experts and promptly ripped it up. “And I burned a Van Gogh self-portrait for the same reason, but that was also because I can’t stand having Van Goghs around, you see; they’re more of those objects I can’t seem to live with. Have you ever stayed in a room with a Van Gogh on the wall for a long time? It’ll drive you loony after a while.” Keating was also at one time possessed by Goya. “Never before or since have I felt so strongly the presence of a master,” he recalled. “The old boy was standing there right next to me and he was guiding my hand so firmly that I felt I had no control over what was taking shape on the canvas.” The painting was a self-portrait of Goya which Keating kept and hung in his bedroom with no intention to sell. In the book Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age, author Jonathon Keats wrote: “Evidently he believed past masters recognized themselves in him as he saw himself in them. His creation of their self-portraits showed their shared sympathies across time and nationality: Painters belonged to the same culture, and could understand each other in ways that museum professionals and peddlers could never comprehend. Yet Keating was not condoning an alternate elite. He considered the culture open to anyone willing to wield a brush.” 

Keating loved to teach painting but didn’t have the education to be a professor. Instead he taught classes in a London railway station to young painters in exchange for old books and tobacco. One of his keenest students was a sixteen-year-old girl named Jane Kelly. He taught her everything he knew about painting and restoration and eventually despite their ages became lovers. “I think any artist who has learnt on a one-to-one basis from a master must love the master,” Kelly explained to the Toronto Star in 1979. “It’s absolute falling in love with the person and all they stand for, in the same way that one falls in love with Rembrandt.” Keating, a rogue who’s favourite painter to defraud was Rembrandt, proved to be a bit vulgar, even to his family audience during his dinner-hour TV show. “Putting little bits of lipstick on the ladies is a delightful occupation,” he says while painting the lips of the young girls in his Degas episode, “but taking it off’s better.” Kelly played a large part in selling and distributing Keating’s sextons.

Inevitably, they were found out by a journalist of The Times of London named Geraldine Norman, who was tipped off after writing an article investigating thirteen fake Samuel Palmer watercolours. The person who tipped her off was Jane Kelly’s brother. Keating openly confessed shortly after an article by Norman ran in The Times with allegations of forgery. Apparently Keating wasn’t upset with Norman for exposing him, and felt a deep connection to her husband Frank, who was a thief-turned-playwright best known for his Cockney comedy Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be. The two became quick friends and within hours Frank agreed to write Tom’s autobiography. Hundreds of journalists and photographers were there at the launch of The Fake’s Progress. Keating and Kelly were both finally arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud in 1977. Kelly pleaded guilty, promising to testify against Keating. They had separated many years before the trial, and she said he had a Svengali-like control over her. Keating pleaded not guilty on the basis that he was working under the guiding spirit of the masters. Shockingly, the case against Keating was dropped completely due to his injuries after a near-fatal motorcycle accident, but Kelly had to serve time in prison because she pleaded guilty. Keating recovered shortly after the charges were dropped and enjoyed his new found success and fame. He was offered his TV program and his sexton blakes, now being shown as “Tom Keatings” were becoming valuable in their own right. His paintings were being sold at a gallery across the street from the courthouse. There are people forging Tom Keating’s forgeries now. 

Watching Tom Keating On Painters that day, seeing how easily and confidently he painted his imitations, how quickly he turned out each picture, made me feel even more confused about my own painting. The landscape I had been struggling with, of the wheat fields and apple orchards on the farm I was staying in, could be quickly resolved and finished if I just imitated Van Gogh. I already imitate all of the masters. That’s why I started painting—because I thought it would be a bit of a joke to paint naive versions of masters works as a young girl with no art training. One of my first attempts was a finger painting of figures playing ring-around-the-rosy, after Matisse. I relate to Keating’s simple sentimentality and romanticism for the past. It’s so easy to feel like an imposter. I think that the only way to overcome that feeling is with faith, a sort of channelling of the old masters spirits. I also feel that I’ve channelled those that inspired me. Am I channeling Tom Keating? At the end of every episode Keating stops painting just as quickly as he started, turns to the audience abruptly and announces quietly, sometimes a bit disappointingly, “I think that’s about all I can do on that. Thank you very much.”