Arts: Putting yourself in the picture: Fancy seeing your husband as the Laughing Cavalier or your mother-in-law as Venus? Peter Dunn investigates the world of Studio d'Arte

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The Independent Culture
NUMBER 405 Chester Road, Woodford, near Manchester is a big Thirties brick house with six bedrooms, leaded windows and a gaudy blue swimming pool at the end of its long, spongy lawn. Here, any day now, thanks to Geoff Henderson and his trusty Stanley knife, you will be able to order yourself a Renoir with your mother-in-law's face superimposed over one of the characters; or a Gauguin or Constable 'modified to match the decor of your room or office'.

Last week, as workmen toiled to convert number 405 from suburban arriviste to Studio d'Arte, a showroom of reproduction masterpieces imported from Holland, Henderson sat in the lounge and surveyed his collection of glistening new canvasses. The effect was mind-boggling. Stacked against the walls, Renoir's Luncheon of the Oarsman rollicked alongside Monet's La Promenade, Van Gogh's Bridge at Langlois and Vermeer's Milkmaid. On its side, an eight-foot copy of The Birth of Venus, by the 19th-century French academic painter William Bouguereau peeked coyly at the saccharine Victorian lovers of J W Waterhouse.

'Welcome to the biggest art robbery ever,' said Henderson, a big, friendly Liverpudlian who made a fortune during the Eighties with his own computer servicing company. 'If they were the originals you'd be looking at 200 million quid.'

Yours today, any way you want it, any colour. For just pounds 800 to pounds 8,300 a time. Framed.

Studio d'Arte was created a year ago in Amsterdam by Jaap Van der Linden, a Dutchman who used to run a waxworks museum in San Francisco. He employs five master painters and more than 100 assistants to copy old masters for Dutch bourgeois. Special commissions have included an architect who had himself painted - 'Rubens style' - in the nude without pubic hair and wearing a crown; and a Dutch hockey team which had its faces superimposed on Rembrandt's Masters of the Cloth Guild. 'The customer is always right' has been the watchword of Studio d'Arte since Jaap and Geoff teamed up earlier this year.

The two men met after a mutual friend persuaded the Manchester entrepreneur to write a sales and marketing report for the Dutchman. 'I'm supposed to be the philistine part of this relationship,' Henderson says now, 'whereas Jaap is most certainly artistic. If you saw him in a paddy you'd believe me 100 per cent. My first impression when I walked through the door in Amsterdam was that I was looking at a lot of originals. I thought, 'There's something not quite right with this situation.' I was convinced they were all originals until I got further into the gallery and saw some artists working on a very large Raphael. And as I walked towards it, I got that tingling on the back of the neck that said, 'You've discovered something quite astonishing.' '

Many of the paintings in the lounge at 405 Chester Road have recently been shown at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza in Manchester. Henderson rummaged through them with mounting enthusiasm, declaring his undying love for the pale face in Renoir's La Loge. He cast a slightly less-doting eye on a nearby portrait of a woman by the American painter Mary Cassatt. 'That's also in an opera box but that's a proper lady, a girl whom you take home to mum,' he said of the Cassatt. 'Cash would suffice on a date with her but with the Renoir lady I'd take my credit cards.' He replaced the sad Renoir behind another canvass. 'Sorry, dear,' he said.

'Most paintings we have here,' he continued briskly, 'they're not cheap but for a person who really wants a very nice piece of repro art, they're not expensive. Let's say pounds 1,200 for a Van Gogh in a very nice frame. That's incredibly inexpensive when you put it alongside the original that's something like pounds 1.2m. Or put it alongside a new three-piece suite that you're just going to park your backside on at pounds 2,500, or a nice Axminster carpet at pounds 2,000.

'People will come in here and they'll see this lot and say, 'Actually, Geoff, I prefer a Canaletto.' That's no problem. We'll get a catalogue of his work and we'll pick out the painting they like, then Stanley knife it out of the book and send it to the artist in Amsterdam to paint, who'll take 50 to 60 days to make it. The cost of the Canaletto or any painting depends on the size and the amount of detail. Take Bouguereau's Venus. Not many people would buy that because it's so big, but we've had a commission from a lady who wants it to hang in her lounge. The original's full of cherubs, but she only wanted two cherubs on the bottom right and nothing else except the central nude and the sea and the clouds. That nude figure is so stunning I'm inclined to agree with her. Oh yes, having it that way would cost her less.' Henderson clasped his hand to his eyes to calculate. 'About pounds 2,000,' he said, re-emerging.

'Basically, we look at four or five different catalogues and the colour depends on the printer,' he continued. 'So the customer doesn't actually get a perfect reproduction. In some catalogues, for instance, La Loge's got an incredible amount of yellow instead of being pale. If someone's happy to pay pounds 950 to hang it in their house with the yellow in it, that's fine by us.'

Manchester's arts establishment has mixed feelings about north-west England being flooded with fake masterpieces. But Henderson's enthusiasm slaloms serenely around any cynicism. 'The potential market's quite amazing,' he says. 'Stockbrokers, solicitors, an awful lot of widowed ladies. It's people who're interested in art but don't actually want a print or poster on the wall, people who really look after their homes. Like my mother-in-law who lives in a two-up, two-down in Stockport and you go through the front door and it's a little palace. The bulk of inquiries are coming from ordinary people like you and me who can't afford pounds 10.4m for Renoir's Umbrellas, which is seven foot high and no good for their front room anyway, but actually think it's worthwhile in the shorter size, re-created by Studio d'Arte so they can hang it in the lounge. People see a little Monet and they're in love with it so why the heck shouldn't they have it brilliantly re-created by Studio d'Arte? If they want their mother-in-law's face in a Rembrandt and they're happy to put it up on their walls, that's fine by me.'

(Photograph omitted)