Notorious art faker sets out to find a legitimate use for his talents
Source: The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk), by Hugh Muir
As the sun beams through the conservatory, Robert Thwaites settles down with his easel. He is wearing vivid red socks which pretty much obscure the grey electronic tag which chafes on his left ankle. He is content and there is quiet. Britain's most notorious living art forger, also known as Prisoner XA5833, is at work.
Ten months ago, Thwaites was jailed for two years for audacious frauds that stunned and embarrassed the art world. Desperate for money, the jobbing artist created paintings and passed them off as the work of John Anster Fitzgerald (circa 1823-1906), who conjured visions of a fairyland full of menacing spirits.
One painting, The Miser, was bought for £20,000 by Rupert Maas, the gallery owner whose expertise was featured on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow. It was good enough for the collector who bought it to insist on keeping it, despite knowing it was fake.
It was no fluke. Another faked Fitzgerald, Going to the Masked Ball, fetched more than £100,000 at auction.
After exposure and conviction, Thwaites, 55, went down in disgrace although even the judge hailed his "remarkably talented" work. Released on licence but under strict supervision, he is painting once more in the style of Fitzgerald. But, older, thinner and greyer, he said he now hoped to use his skills and the additional notoriety to create a legitimate career.
"It wasn't a disaster. It was a risk I took and I was pragmatic enough to realise it could all go wrong and that if it did go wrong I would be punished," he said. "I deserved it. I wouldn't do it again but if I can use the notoriety, why not? I love to paint ... And I am very good."
The court heard the first painting was faked and sold so Thwaites could pay private school fees of £54,000. The second, from which he earned £38,000, was to raise money for himself and a friend - also convicted - who made £28,000. The third, which did not sell, was conceived to raise cash for his brother, Brian, who is seriously ill and uses a wheelchair. He too was punished with a 12-month sentence, suspended for two years.
"I knew it was wrong but I wasn't scared," said Thwaites. "What was the worst that could happen?" He was not afraid of prison. "I knew it would be nasty. But just because I got caught doesn't mean I failed. I procured for my son the best education money can buy."
He went to Wandsworth prison, south London, and then to Ford open prison in West Sussex where he began sketching with pen and pencil. News of his brand of lawbreaking spread and he soon became the jail's unofficial portrait artist.
He never sought payment for his prison creations. "What you need more is friends or people to look after you."
The offences were committed in Herefordshire but the deal on his release obliges him to stay with a relative in Norfolk and he is hard at work there. His latest Fitzgerald-style painting, The Release, is painted on hardboard, so there can be no dispute about its origins.
His entry into the fakes market followed a period of agonising. Friends warned him against it. But six weeks later he took the first painting to Mr Maas, claiming it as an heirloom. "If you are going to do this you must have confidence in the quality of your work," he said.
On the completion of each fake, he said it would be the last, but he claims that each time he was overtaken by different imperatives. "I knew that if I painted a wildlife picture I would be lucky to get £1,000. Doing the other paintings added a row of noughts."
A third painting, Poppies With Imps and Fairies and Foliage, proved his undoing when his brother tried but failed to pass it off as an heirloom.
Thwaites says said he knew the game was up once the police were involved. "I decided not to drag the proceedings out and pleaded guilty. It was a relief being sentenced because at least then it was over."