The incredible life of artist John Myatt
PUBLISHED: 15:45 07 March 2016 | UPDATED: 15:46 07 March 2016
WASHINGTON GREEN FINE ART
John Myatt is one of the most notorious art forgers in the twentieth century, but his passion for painting saw him forge a career as a bonafide artist following his prison term, he talks to Sandra Smith on a recent visit to Winchester
During the couple of hours I spend with John Myatt he is honest and candid about his artistic career, which includes an international reputation that embraces collectors worldwide. He also runs teaching courses at Cambridge University not to mention Canada, Japan and Indonesia, and spent five years working with Sky Arts. Such success is laudable - but not sufficiently so to prompt our meeting. No, the reason behind this interview, as we each acknowledge, is John’s involvement in one of the biggest art scams of the twentieth century when the discovery of his 200 forged paintings resulted in a one year sentence in Brixton Prison.
“What seems peculiar,” he ponders, “is that I used household emulsion and acrylics. I didn’t even bother with authentic canvases. That was my joke. Christie’s valued one of my paintings at £25k and gave it an official certificate. I got a lot of paintings past the experts.”
Calmly spoken and forthcoming in answering my flurry of questions, John readily recounts the circumstances leading to his crime.
“When my first wife left I had to stop teaching to take care of my three-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son. It was a stressful time. I was worried the children would go into care so I had to show I could provide them with a reasonable life.”
In order to generate an income he advertised a service producing genuine fakes. Professor Drewe (“A sophisticated conman with a fabulous lifestyle who lived in a salubrious part of Golders Green”) responded, persuading John to copy works of art which were passed off as originals in return for cash.
“I was putting my children to bed at night then painting on a table in the lounge. The light was awful and the colours wonky. I had to put everything away before the morning. But I was looking at an unmentionable amount of money for me. I thought one day I’d get caught but this was a jolly good way of not worrying and being a father.”
John spent his weekends visiting galleries around the country, deconstructing and sketching paintings whilst trying to get into the mindset of the artist and breathe in their world. It’s a period he recalls as being an interesting academic exercise. Yet Drewe’s background research proved to be equally crucial in their scheme.
“One of the things Drewe discovered was that you could present a pretty rubbish painting but the paperwork and back story would often be sufficient to authenticate it. He managed to get into the archives at the V&A and Tate. Between the two of us we decided which paintings to forge.”
The scam continued for several years.
“Then it all went wrong in my head. My children had scholarships and were away at boarding school. I thought about what I’d been doing and wanted to pack it up so I rang Drewe and said I wasn’t doing it anymore.”
Had it not been for the collapse of Drewe’s relationship with his common law wife, the art world might have remained ignorant of the fakes which had flooded the market. When Drewe left her, however, she scoured through his personal belongings, finding incriminating paperwork which she bundled into two bin liners and took to the local police station. Once forwarded to the Arts and Antiques Squad at Scotland Yard, it was only a matter of time before the police knocked on John’s door.
“I was just about to put my son on the school bus one day when the police turned up. I can’t be doing with making up stories so thought it best to get it over and done with so I cooperated. I pleaded guilty… four years later the case went to court. The judge was very nice to me - he gave me a year’s sentence even though I’d been told I could get up to six years. I spent four months in Brixton Prison as a Category D prisoner.”
Was this a frightening experience? Did it deter you from painting? How did your family react?
“If you put up with boarding school you can survive prison,” John jokes. “Other inmates knew what I was in for and I did portraits in exchange for phone cards. Prison Officers gave me commissions. I was Compound Cleared so I pushed my little trolley around with stamps and tobacco to stock up the shops. I’d mentioned what I was doing to my father-in-law just before he died and he thought it was hilarious. My notorious crime stuck two fingers up at the art world and my children thought it was cool. I made friends in prison. If you have a useful skill you can help people such as those who can’t read or write.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of this story is the period following John’s release.
“Jonathan Searle, the Detective who arrested me, urged me to start painting again. He paid £5,000 for me to do his family portrait and swapped some of his art collection for my fakes. Even Barristers asked for mementos of the case. Within six months I had several thousand pounds in the bank. The amount of goodwill and cooperation from the police in getting me going really caught me by surprise.”
Since then John’s career has flourished. He has been with Washington Green Fine Art Publishers since 2003, is stocked in Winchester’s Canvas Gallery and reproduces legal fakes in his home studio.
“About 25% of what I currently paint is my own original work. Last year I did two trips to Majorca pretending to be Claude Monet, which was great. I like French impressionism but I’ve been dabbling in all kinds of twentieth century abstraction. I’m having more fun painting now and the quality of my fakes is much better than it was when I was a criminal, because I can take my time. I don’t usually do copies but a man approached me with a painting worth over £1m which he wanted to sell without people knowing. I copied it for him, put it in the same frame and he sold the original. Another chap had two originals and one of my fakes. When the crime was uncovered he didn’t care, he thought my fake was better than the originals.”
John is a youthful 70 years of age whose work is in demand. He is open about his mistakes without allowing them to burden him and remains committed to the notion that facing your wrongdoing is preferable to running away. His time in prison changed him from, “A liberal guy,” to someone much more compassionate towards some crimes but far less so to others. He is a church organist and, “A seven out of ten Christian – not a very good one but I try.”
Beliefs and attitudes aside, it is surely an accumulation of the past which continues to shape John Myatt’s present.
“My career wouldn’t have been so successful now if I hadn’t done those fakes. It’s been both an asset and an albatross but I was the guy in the biggest art forgery of the twentieth century – or perhaps not…that crime may not yet have been discovered.”
Find out more at www.johnmyatt.com. John recently exhibited his work at The Canvas Gallery in Winchester, and is set to return to Hampshire in the near future.
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