An art memoir with a difference, A Forger’s Tale doesn’t trace the life and work of a celebrated artist, but that of Shaun Greenhalgh, one of Britain’s most infamous art forgers.
A working class kid from England’s North West, whose backyard workshop was jokingly referred by police as “the northern annex of the British Museum,” Greenhalgh seemed an unlikely candidate for swindling the distinctly upper class art establishment. But a genuine love of art, a dogged determination to achieve an authentic look, and contact with the right (well, technically the wrong) sort of people, saw him create pieces that astounded experts and had them parting with their pounds – albeit for sums far less than what they themselves expected to get once the humble Northerner had left their shop.
Written during a four year prison sentence after Scotland Yard finally caught up to him, A Forger’s Tale is infused with a typical Northern sense of humour, with Greenhalgh’s unpretentious voice carrying this unusual and interesting memoir. Chapters flit between personal history, artistic inspiration, creative processes, and final pieces. It’s a movement that almost seems to replicate Greenhalgh’s creative processes, which saw him move with similar speed between mediums, eras, and artistic practices. The end result is quite charming – almost like listening to Greenhalgh telling the story himself in the pub, lengthy tangents and all – and it’s a wonderful example of personality translating from the individual person on to the page.
An ordinary man who embarked on what can only be described as an extraordinary career, it’s no surprise that media interest around the story made much of the class divide, of a working class man taking on a supposedly better educated upper class. But Greenhalgh didn’t see things that way, and following his story it’s easy to see why. Driven by an intense love of art, it was never about conning the experts, or even making huge sums of money. Rather, Greenhalgh created simply to see what he could create, and if experts were willing to ignore what he considered obvious flaws and mistakes, then that was their problem.
But it’s not all fake Rembrandts and phony provenance. Greenhalgh also pens some heartfelt and touching moments, particularly when it comes to his parents, dragged into the later court case despite their advancing age, and his brief relationship with a library assistant named Janey, who passed away within a few months of being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. The chapter focusing on his relationship is noteably, like the relationship itself, devoid of forgeries, with Greenhalgh happy just to observe art rather than copy it, secure with a steady job, a Manchester flat, and a brilliant and witty girlfriend. The simplicity with which he describes Janey’s decline, and the acknowledgement that had she not died, his life might have turned out very differently, is really quite beautiful, and it makes for an interesting, though very sad, interval in a life that seemed packed to the rafters with crafting and creating.
Giving us the briefest of glimpses of the man behind the crime, A Forger’s Tale is really at its best when Greenhalgh delves into the subject he is most passionate about – art. Showcasing a profound appreciation for a variety of eras, artists, and mediums, he is almost obsessive in his drive to create worthy replicates and “found” treasures. One might almost read it as a how to guide, but I don’t think Greenhalgh would recommend the book be used as such!
“Most people have an image of the art faker as a bewhiskered old codger slaving away patiently at his easel,” writes Greenhalgh. Thankfully, we have A Forger’s Tale to remedy that!