The Faker's Moll

Jane Kelly met the notorious art faker Tom Keating at the age of 16, and became his assistant and lover. At the Old Bailey, she was portrayed as the schemer who led him astray. But newly discovered letters to her from Keating tell a different story.
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LAYER MARNEY Tower, an Elizabethan manor house near Colchester: Essex Man is out in force. It's a sea of Pringle jumpers, gold chains and Reactolite Rapides - not your usual crowd for a sale of fine art. "There's not much trade in here today," notes David Collins, the auctioneer, surveying the 500-odd bidders crammed into the manor's dining hall. But this is not entirely unexpected. The artist under the hammer is Tom Keating, the flamboyant faker who, in the Sixties and Seventies, used his talent for mimicry to make fools of the saleroom establishment and a very comfortable living for himself.

Since Keating's death in 1984, his fakes have acquired a market value of their own. In 1989, his version of Turner's Fighting Temeraire sold for pounds 27,500 - to a builder who put it over the mantelpiece of his retirement home in the Algarve. Among the 85 lots are pictures imitating Degas, Matisse, Modigliani and the English visionary painter Samuel Palmer, as well as original works that reveal Keating's own style. They are being sold by Brad Maurice, widower of Jane Kelly, Keating's former girlfriend and a gifted artist in her own right. She was the model for many of these "Sexton Blakes", as Keating liked to call them. She was also his business manager, lover, housekeeper and partner in crime.

In 1979, they were both arrested after their sale of a series of fake Samuel Palmer landscapes was exposed by the journalist Geraldine Norman, then saleroom correspondent of the Times. The trial was the object of intense interest: Jane turned Queen's Evidence and was given an 18-month suspended sentence. Keating pleaded not guilty, and when the case was dropped because of his poor health he emerged from the courtroom a celebrity. His autobiography, The Fake's Progress (co- written with Norman and her husband, Frank), was widely read. In the Eighties, he completed two series for Channel 4 and made a fortune from a high-profile auction of his phoney old masters, although a fatal heart attack in 1984 ensured that he didn't live to spend the cash. Jane Kelly, meanwhile, returned to Toronto - where she had set up home with her Canadian husband, Brad Maurice - and pursued a successful career as a restorer. In 1991 she died of cancer, aged only 44.

It is this story, as much as the art, that interested the punters at Layer Marney last month, and by the end of the day they had forked out pounds 130,000 to own their piece of it: a memento of the faker and his moll, and of the sensational trial at which the jury heard of telegrams brought by camel, carrier bags stuffed with cash, and auction-house experts duped into waxing lyrical over the daubs of a house painter from Forest Hill. The tale continues to work its magic: there are now fakes of Keating fakes in circulation, and the Essex town of Manningtree has just named a street after him.

Twenty years after the trial, it is hard to separate fact from myth, fake stories from genuine ones. As Geraldine Norman now says, "The whole affair began as an untruth. It was very difficult to sort who was lying and who wasn't." The Fake's Progress amplified the popular image of Keating as a roguish cockney geezer, but its accuracy was publicly disputed by Keating's daughter, Linda, and - privately - by Jane. Most contemporary newspaper accounts of the trial painted Keating as a cuddly character who had been duped by a scheming assistant. The Observer described him as an "artist, eccentric and bon viveur ... He looks like everyone's idea of Father Christmas." Few newspapers subscribed to the prosecution theory that Jane Kelly had been the victim of Keating's "Svengali-like influence over women". Pushed out of the frame by Keating's colour-ful image, Kelly has remained a shadowy figure.

Yet those who knew her remain captivated by her memory. "She was a live wire," recalls her widower, Brad Maurice. "When she walked into aroom, people gravitated towards her, or were terrified of her. " Andrew Davis, who organised the sale at Layer Marney, was a close friend of Jane's from 1978 until her death. His attachment to her was intense, and still is. He talks fondly of her preference for Three Castles rolling tobacco, her talent for poker, her sharp sense of humour. "If she were here now, you'd be charmed, you'd be absolutely hooked. She could hold her own anywhere."

JANE KELLY was born on 4 June 1946 in Llanelli, South Wales. Her father, Michael, grew up in Ceylon, where he led the life of a swashbuckling Boys' Own adventurer. He crossed the Gobi desert, sailed to Tahiti and played cards with Errol Flynn. During the Second World War he was a major in the army; and met Jane's mother, Nancy, who was serving in the Women's Royal Army Corps, in Egypt. She became his third wife, and in 1945 they returned to her home in South Wales and ran a pub and then a holiday camp. After the business collapsed, the family moved to London, and lodged with Nancy's sister in Burlington Avenue, Kew Gardens, occupying the upstairs rooms with their two children, Jane and Michael Jnr. The overcrowding in the modest suburban semi was complicated by Michael Snr's heavy drinking - in later life, he took to hiding whisky bottles in his wellies.

Jane was a confident and precocious teenager - she and a schoolfriend once picked up two unknown musicians named Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart on a visit to Eel Pie Island. She was only 16 when she met Tom Keating in the summer of 1963. He was a hard-drinking 47-year-old with a failed marriage behind him. After his honourable discharge from the Navy in 1944, he had spent his time working as a painter and decorator, studying at Goldsmith's Art College and learning how to create plausible fakes. By 1963 he was working as a restorer, and when he met Jane in the railway cafe at Kew Gardens station, had recently overseen work on a series of murals at Marlborough House. "He was anarchistic," Jane told the Toronto Star in 1979, in the only interview she ever gave on the subject. "He was very young in outlook. He didn't criticise us [Jane and her friends]. He encouraged us to think about politics, to think about art, to read books that might give us some sort of insight into another world ... we were very flattered that we were being listened to instead of being told we were too young to know what we were talking about."

Shortly after meeting Keating, Jane abandoned her school science course and apprenticed herself to him. The circumstances are difficult to establish. Andrew Davis believes that Jane's family were happy with the arrangement. Her father, it seems, already knew Keating from the local pub. "I got the impression her father almost connived in sending Jane off with Keating," he reflects. "Jane said things to me that suggested her father was quite happy to have one of his children off his hands." However, Brad Maurice argues that Jane's departure with a man 29 years her senior came as a blow to her parents, especially to her mother. "Nancy was never very fond of Tom. But Jane was very strong-willed. I think they discussed it and were disappointed that this was her choice, but it was fairly obvious that she was going to go off anyway."

Keating taught Jane painting and restoration techniques, and she looked after his studio and prepared his canvases. In 1979 she recalled: "I think any artist who has learnt on a one-to-one basis from a master must love the master. It's nothing to do with sexual love. It's absolute falling in love with the person and all they stand for, in the same way that one falls in love with Rembrandt." At first, the relationship does not seem to have been physical; Jane was going out with David de Gans, a sixth- former at Westminster School, who was killed in a car accident in 1963. After this, the relationship with Keating became more powerful, and by the time they moved to Wattisfield Hall in Norfolk to set up a restoration practice, they were lovers.

IT WAS DURING this period that the Samuel Palmer fakes were painted, a clutch of landscapes whose high-profile auction in London eventually precipitated Keating and Kelly's downfall. How the fakes found their way into the auction rooms has never been satisfactorily established. To their deaths, both Keating and Kelly insisted that the whole scam was serendipitous; that the Palmer "pastiches" had been sent to a local saleroom by chance after a studio clearout, and that news of their subsequent appearance as a star attraction at Leger's on Old Bond Street came to them as a complete surprise. Then, the story goes, Keating decided to run off another set of Palmers to teach the art establishment a lesson. Over the next six months, he completed another 20 pictures. They selected the best three, and in November 1970, Jane took them directly to Leger's, where they were enthusiastically received by the gallery's specialist, David Posnett. On 10 December, Posnett contacted Jane, asking for details of their provenance. A few days later, she wrote back, enclosing the details in a Christmas card.

Jane claimed that the Palmers were a legacy from her grandparents, and adapted her family history to provide them with a plausible pedigree. The Kellys were descended from a wealthy Anglo-Irish family who had owned a large manor house in the East Anglian village of North Cove. But Jane's great-grandfather had left for Ceylon in the 1860s. Jane said he had taken the Palmers with him, thus explaining why these works had remained uncatalogued and unknown.

She and Keating made enough money out of the scam to go to Tenerife and buy a farm. But by Christmas 1974 the relationship had broken down, partly because of Keating's increasing dependence on drink, and he returned to England. Early the next year, Jane met Brad Maurice, her future husband, in a bar in El Medano. The son of a paint manufacturer, he owned a house renovation business in Toronto and had spent a couple of years in Rome working as a film extra. "It was love at first sight," recalls Maurice. He moved into the farmhouse with Jane shortly after.

Jane's dealings with Keating became increas- ingly acrimonious. In his letters, which have never before been published, he attacked her with a mixture of vitriol and self-pity: "Your cruel and unnecessary silence has hardened my heart towards you," he raged in April 1975. "For whilst you have known love and the bliss that issues from it, in warm and beautiful surroundings, I have known and been through a form of hell that even the Japanese couldn't inflict." He was in combative mood: "Have you become insane, as well as infatuated? How can you ever expect to be a painter? Painters should possess soul!" Even as he railed against Jane, he revealed a depth of feeling for her: "I happen to love you very, very much. And I don't care a fuck who knows it!! And surely my letters written before `the event' [their separation] and after prove this. But I will no longer be shat upon from a great height, and I will not lift a finger for old times` sake to help you in any way, for you must learn even at your mature age, Jane, that you are not the only girl in the world."

BY THEN, the fraudulent nature of the Palmer pictures was being investigated by Geraldine Norman. Persuaded by a number of experts that they could not be genuine, she set about trying to trace Jane Kelly, named in the provenance given by the Leger Gallery. It was Michael Kelly, Jane's brother, who told her that Keating was the author of the fakes, and so set in motion a train of events that would lead to Jane's prosecution. He telephoned Norman and demanded pounds 7,000 for the information she needed. Eventually, she haggled him down to pounds 150, and he showed her photographs of Palmers in progress in the studio in Tenerife. Norman then tracked their author down to his bolt-hole in Dedham, Essex. At first he was polite but evasive. But a few weeks later, he contacted her and asked her to help him go public about his involvement. Soon, legal proceedings had been initiated against Keating, Kelly, and their friend Lionel Evans, an Essex antiques dealer who had helped them to dispose of a fake Constable. The Palmers were only the tip of the iceberg. Somewhere out there were a further 2,000 Sexton Blakes.

"Tom visited us in Canada shortly before the stuff hit the fan," remembers Brad Maurice. "He assured Jane that he wouldn't involve her, and advised her to say nothing. But that wasn't what happened." Scotland Yard detectives enlisted the Mounties to track Jane down. She tried to fight her extradition, but when it became clear that Keating was planning to claim that the scam had been her private project, she decided to return to face the music, and turn Queen's Evidence against him.

At the Old Bailey, Jane's defence spun their Svengali story, and Keating continued to insist that the fraud was all Jane's work, and that he'd just painted a few hommages to his favourite artists. He related how he had learnt of one of their more lucrative Palmer sales in a coded telegram sent by Jane to Tenerife. "Sammy has got 4,000 votes" was the message. "A chap came up on a camel and handed me this telegram," Keating said. "I read it and then it dawned on me what it meant. I was horrified in a way. I got up on the camel as well and went one and a half miles to send a telegram to England to Jane saying something like, `Come home at once.'" The papers loved this kind of dotty raconteuring, and reported it in great detail. Brad Maurice could only sit and listen as the various testimonies mixed truth and fantasy. He recalls bumping into Keating in the gents: "He offered me his hand and said, `No hard feelings, mate.' But I turned him down." Geraldine Norman found the trial scarcely more comfortable. "It was very distressing. When you start these things you don't realise what the human consequences are going to be. All I could think was, `What have I done to poor old Father Christmas?'"

As it turned out, Father Christmas's heart condition prevented the trial from reaching a conclusion. Jane accepted her sentence and returned to Toronto as soon as she could. "By the time it was over Jane was exhausted emotionally and physically," Maurice recollects. She devoted herself to restoration work, and tried to accustom herself to the restrictions that came with her suspended sentence. There was no reconciliation with Keating, although he did write one letter to Jane in 1983. "I've had much success, but very bad health," he reflected. "No cigs, booze or love!! Little to live for but my work. I live alone - with philosophy."

"Jane's real tragedy was that she never got the chance to do more of her own work," says Andrew Davis. "When Brad's business collapsed in the recession of the Eighties, she became the breadwinner, and had to take on as much work as she could." In 1987, Davis accompanied Jane and Brad on a trip to Mexico."In retrospect, she wasn't well," Davis reflects. "I'm convinced that one of the things that contributed to her getting cancer was all the solvents she used in her work." She was diagnosed in October 1990 and died the following March.

Before she became too weak to travel, in 1989, Jane made one last trip to England. Andrew Davis took her on a driving tour around her old East Anglian haunts. They visited Wattisfield Hall, where the Samuel Palmer fakes were created. In the barn beside the house, they discovered a drawing mouldering under a pile of junk. It was a study that Jane had made in her teens, at about the time she met Keating in the buffet bar at Kew station. Executed in black ink on a long rectangle of pink-coloured board, it shows a phalanx of knights marching fearlessly across a chessboard floor towards a ruined castle. Davis has it in his shop in Kew, but he wouldn't sell it for any price. Looking at it, I'm reminded of something that Jane said to the man from the Toronto Star just after the trial. "There's a kind of magic innocence that carries you through. It's like walking down dark alleys. You're not afraid and you don't get hurt because you don't know there's any danger." You don't know it, but there is.