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In the Manner of a Genius: Reviewing Courtauld's Forgery Exhibition


watercolour painting of a man observing a gallery

Art by Florence Sykes

‘Imitation’, we are told, ‘is the sincerest form of flattery’. I must confess that when this platitude was first wheeled out by my mother in an admirable attempt at appeasement (my best friend had bought the same trainers as me) I was deeply unsatisfied. Not convinced at the tender age of seven and in the case of an admittedly minor transgression, I was certain I would not be swayed, thirteen years later, by flattery at its most grasping and false — that of the forger. In the Courtauld’s ‘Art and Artifice’ display, however, this fakery seems the unavoidable flipside of making great art, the product of unbridled ambition, or an adulation that runs riot. But is it of any value? If the world is divided between the have and have-nots, can talent likewise be drawn along such decisive lines?

In the spirit of confession, I hasten to add that I cannot tell the difference between Caravaggio and de Boulogne; I am shaky on the Impressionists versus impressions of them; I cannot quite gauge what is van Dyck and what is merely van Dyck-like. All of this is an important caveat, to profess my susceptibility to insincerity. But I do expect a curator to be capable of this discernment. You see, I do not want my gallery experience to be compromised. I would like to glide along, gaping at artists’ unadulterated accomplishment. In short, mediocrity surely should be kept well away from the Old Masters.

But it is not quite this simple. In 1998, an anonymous phone call to the Courtauld Institute revealed, I imagine rather gleefully, that 11 works of art hanging in the gallery were forgeries. The tip-off, apparently from an accomplice of the forger Eric Hebborn, kickstarted an ingeniously inverted treasure hunt. As something of a counterfeit genius, Hebborn was prolific, claiming to have produced over a thousand fakes. Most remain unidentified, instead hung and hailed as authentic masterpieces. One of his drawings, in the manner of Thomas Rowlandson, is included in the Courtauld’s latest display. A man sits slumped in sleep, chin spilling over his collar; it is deftly detailed but, aside from that, somewhat unassuming.

a watercolour painting of an exhibition in an art gallery

Deception, like everything else, is a matter of style. The displayed Virgin and Child, possibly by Michelangelo Buonarroti, seems, to my untrained eye, entirely plausible. Umberto Giunti’s reprise of this iconic theme, his Madonna of the Veil, was thought to be Sandro Botticelli’s triumph, and he was only rumbled when one scholar noted that the painting bore a suspicious resemblance to the 20th century actress Lillian Gish (think superimposing Margot Robbie onto the Madonna). A likely copy of Louis-Philippe Boitard’s drawing of a child’s head shows paradoxically pinched features on a remarkably bloated face, the eyes closed in a stillness more like rigor mortis than the restful ease of the authentic original. And in an instance of almost admirable opportunism, Walter T. Spencer, a bookseller and dealer of prints and drawings, slapped the initials of William Blake onto a drawing of a spirit from Henry VI with cheerful indifference. It was actually by George Romney, but perhaps that does not matter.

There is something vaguely endearing about the Courtauld displaying its mistakes like this, as if an audience is needed to absolve the gallery of its own credulity. The truth is though that these forgeries are good. In fact, it often comes down to details as minute as the pigments used, the dating of the paper, or the loop of a letter in a specific signature to determine their falsity. Even then, the results are not always decisive. To see these undeniably convincing scams is to feel a degree of grudging respect for their makers. It may seem a silly question but if you can paint in the style of, say, Bruegel so meticulously and so compellingly, you must be talented — so why not paint as yourself? It is strange that the impulse is for duplicity. Why obscure your own ability in a specious recreation of someone else’s?

Perhaps that question is too high-minded. The answer, one presumes, is money. It goes without saying that Michelangelo’s work is worth more than the output of a chancer with an impressively forensic, but entirely fraudulent, penchant for mimicry. What is less obvious is where the boundaries are between influence and imitation, between so-called flattery and outright forgery.

Longinus, for example, in ‘On Sublimity’ famously exhorted poets to allow the ‘genius of the ancients’ to act ‘as a kind of oracular cavern’ and let ‘effluences flow from it into the minds of their imitators.’ The classical formula for creativity was heavily reliant on an economical attitude towards the achievements of your ancestors. Shakespeare and his contemporaries borrowed extensively from one another. We need not even go back that far; neither T.S. Eliot nor James Joyce seemed particularly squeamish about the sanctity of another writer’s work. Of course, some of this was at a time when the notions of authorship and ownership were looser, the subjects less litigious, but it does testify to the fact that there is a certain elasticity to the meaning of influence.

It would, I think, be hard to level the accusation of forgery against Renaissance workshops, for example. Raphael’s was famous; Michelangelo and Botticelli trained at one; during Leonardo da Vinci’s time at Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop, the master and pupil painted The Baptism of Christ together. Collaboration and imitation were the cultural norms, and talent was not hermetically sealed but could be collectively laid claim to, capable of dispersion, and distribution. The ‘artist’ was almost a cipher; the name could refer to an individual but just as easily operate as a strange kind of pseudonym, gesturing to a group of creators who were all animated by the same artistic impetus. Compare this to the scepticism that surrounds, say, Damien Hirst’s or Jeff Koons’ use of assistants; the maker’s name becomes an assurance of commercial integrity as much as a promise of capability. The forger, then, emerges as a figure when genius becomes more of an economic proposition than a purely creative force.

watercolour painting of an art gallery exhibition

All of this suggests that inspiration can become more insidious fairly quickly. If in the past artistic innovation could look scarily similar to creative impersonation, it is less feasible now. Spencer may have been the victim of his own hapless ambition when, midway through the 19th century, he falsely ascribed that drawing to Blake. Hebborn was certainly not when he deliberately concocted a pigment to match the materials of early modern paintings. In his 1991 autobiography Drawn to Trouble, he cast aside all pretence of anonymity, boasting that he had sold the Rowlandson drawing to the Courtauld. The instinct for ownership seems to have suddenly kicked in and it reads as an audacious assertion of authority over a work of art that is not quite his to claim. Hebborn revelled in this reputation for deceit, while also abdicating responsibility for its reception. It was for the experts, he shrugged, to separate genius from its spurious substitute, and if they are taken in, well, that is their problem.

And taken in I was. I found myself more appreciative of a forgery than of Constantin Guys’ original drawing. Donated to the Courtauld for teaching purposes, the copy shows a horse and carriage going at breakneck speed, a dog dashing alongside in an ecstasy of motion. The lines are reminiscent of Quentin Blake. It is something I would quite like to hang at home. I wonder if this is a litmus test for transcendent talent; if it is something you would display as a piece of whimsical kitsch outside your guest loo, maybe it is not deserving of prime position in the Louvre.

Here might be a good moment to return to that maxim about imitation as flattery. It is from Oscar Wilde (probably) and, rather unfairly, I have cut it off before the wisdom of its qualification: ‘[i]mitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.’ That, I think, is the crucial catch, an insistence on the difference between talent and the transcription of it. Shaun Greenhalgh, another notorious British forger, would have agreed with Wilde. In A Forger’s Tale (2015), a memoir written from prison, he asserts that ‘great art combines vision and ability, and if either is lacking then that relegates it to the second division’. He was certainly not untalented, producing forgeries of ancient Egyptian statues and Edgar Degas’ drawings alike. Greenhalgh even claims that La Bella Principessa was, in fact, his work and not that of da Vinci, the sitter a girl called Sally who worked at the local Co-op checkout in Bolton rather than Bianca Sforza, the daughter of the famous patron. Greenhalgh may well be a Renaissance man, but he is not the Renaissance man. His work is not da Vinci because he did not have the vision da Vinci had. The work of the forger is inherently confined, its parameters pre-ordained. The art is done before the paint brushes canvas because that vision has already been realised in the original. The forger is forced to repeat and rehearse; it is an art of ability but without the essence that energised its authentic maker.

We have an appetite for genius — for seeing it, owning it, displaying it, telling others about it. If we do not have it ourselves (and, by definition, the vast majority of us do not), then a consoling proximity to major talent is compensation enough. The ability to recognise beauty, to realise the value of somebody else’s work and to feel the attendant sense of awe in its presence, is a laudably human instinct. In some cases, this eagerness outstrips our reality; we bear witness to a brilliance that may just be underhanded opportunism or misplaced certainty. But the search in and of itself, the reach for recovery of such a promise, must be worth something.

PHILIPPA CONLON reads English at Lincoln College. Her next job could be as a corporate sell-out (she just doesn’t know it yet).

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