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date: 07 March 2021

Keating, Thomas Patrickfree

(1917–1984)
  • Richard Fawkes
  • , revised

Thomas Patrick Keating (1917–1984)

by unknown photographer

unknown collection / Christie's; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Keating, Thomas Patrick (1917–1984), artist and faker, was born on 1 March 1917 in Forest Hill, London, the fourth child in the family of four sons and three daughters of Herbert Josiah Patrick O'Brian Keating, a house painter, and his wife, Louisa DeLieu, a charwoman. He attended the local infants' school in Dalmain Road, where he learned to draw, and at the age of seven ran away to stay with his maternal grandmother in Eltham, Kent. There he attended Roper Street School. Three years later he returned to Forest Hill and Dalmain Road School where he won a paintbox for swimming a width of the local baths underwater. Painting and drawing became his obsession.

Leaving school at fourteen Tom Keating took a variety of jobs, including working as a latherboy and as a lift boy at the Capitol cinema in the Haymarket, before joining his father as a decorator. It was there he learned decorative skills and how to mix paint. In the evenings he attended art school in Croydon and Camberwell.

During the Second World War Keating served as a stoker in the Royal Navy and saw service in the Far East and on Russian and Atlantic convoys. After his ship was torpedoed he was invalided out of the navy and, at the age of thirty, he became a full-time art student at Goldsmiths' College, south London, on an ex-serviceman's grant. He failed his exams twice. He had wanted to teach and without a diploma that career was closed to him. It was the start of his bitterness towards an establishment he always viewed as hostile. In 1943 Keating married Ellen, daughter of James Graveney, printer. They had a son, Douglas, and a daughter, Linda.

Keating joined a restoration studio in London and while there was asked to make copies of a number of paintings. He was later horrified to discover them being sold as genuine. It was then that he decided to flood the market with fakes (or 'Sexton Blakes' as he called them in his own variant of cockney rhyming slang) as a way of striking a blow for impoverished artists against rich dealers and collectors and of getting back at a world which he felt was both shunning and using him.

During the next twenty-five years Keating worked as a freelance restorer, his most important commission being the two years he spent restoring the Laguerre murals at Marlborough House. But all the time he was painting both in his own style and in that of other artists including Rembrandt, Constable, Krieghoff, Degas, Renoir, and Turner. He later admitted to putting more than two thousand fakes in the style of more than 130 artists into circulation. He released them on to the market gradually either by giving them away, selling them to recover the cost of his materials, or putting them into small auctions where they would not arouse suspicion.

Keating's faking became public knowledge in 1976 when it was revealed that thirteen watercolours attributed to Samuel Palmer were not by Palmer. Keating wrote to The Times and admitted he had done them. The newspaper hunt to find him (he was touring the west country on his motorcycle) and subsequent revelations turned him into a folk hero. His trial at the Old Bailey in 1979 was stopped because of his ill health, and he returned home to Dedham to continue painting. It was important, he said, that his faking should be discovered in order that the 'joke' should become public knowledge. 'If I had wanted to be a real faker', he later said, 'you would never have heard of me'. He also said that fooling the experts was his greatest joy in life; the thought of it made him helpless with laughter. Keating's object was never to make money. He was generous to a fault and remained poor throughout his life.

In 1982 Keating found new fame as presenter of Channel 4's Tom Keating on Painters, a series in which he talked about his favourite artists and demonstrated their style. This won him the Broadcasting Press Guild award for the best on-screen performance in a non-acting role. He followed this with a further series on the impressionists. In 1983, 135 of his paintings were sold at Christies for £72,000 and, for the first time in his life, he had real money. However, his health, which had never been good since the war, was declining rapidly. Keating died in Essex County Hospital, Colchester, on 12 February 1984.

Sources

  • The Times (13 Feb 1984)
  • T. Keating, G. Norman, and F. Norman, The fake's progress (1977)
  • personal knowledge (1990)

Likenesses

  • J. Lewinski, photograph, 1977, NPG
  • T. P. Keating, oils (Self-portrait as Rembrandt), repro. in The Times (3 Nov 1989); Bonhams, Dec 1989
  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photograph; Christies, 12 Dec 1983 [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£102,021: administration, 7 Aug 1984, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
National Portrait Gallery, London