Interview: The life and times of a master forger

Novelist William Boyd's slim monograph on a little-known American painter may be his masterpiece, says John Walsh. Photographs by Philip Sinden
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William Boyd and I are surrounded by famous faces. We stroll past Salman Rushdie, Frank Bruno, and PD James, barely acknowledging their presence. John Mortimer regards us with a fat, magisterial sneer. You can see the strained smile of Prof Stephen Hawking at the end of a side room. Iris Murdoch's kind face is surrounded by flowerpots, while Sir John Pope-Hennessy's severe physiognomy has been disrespectfully enlivened by a pair of grey-framed spectacles. Then the huge disembodied head of Lord Mountbatten looms up. "Bloody hell," says William Boyd, "it's a hundred times life-size. I don't think it was meant to be viewed from four feet away."

We are in the National Portrait Gallery, inspecting the artworks. It is a favourite haunt of the British novelist, who this week revealed a special affinity with the world of canvas and coloured oils. But more of that in a minute. First of all, why did he like the NPG so much?

"In portraits, you're looking more than anything else for technical virtuosity. And you see more of it here than in any other modern gallery. You're looking for a likeness, and there are different levels of competence. There's a picture of Richard Eyre, whom I know well, which looks nothing like him. Whereas this portrait of Kenneth Clark by Graham Sutherland looks very like Kenneth Clark."

But Will, I said, nobody has cared about exactness in a portrait - about getting the features "right" - for 60 years. Otherwise, these rooms would be like a photographers' gallery. There used to be an Auerbach in the corridor out here, a portrait of Auerbach's friend Kossoff, which was so lathered and buttered with swirls of impasto that you could hardly make out a face at all.

"But it does matter," he said firmly. "Francis Bacon said Sutherland's portraits were like covers of Newsweek, which is a terrible slur. Some of his work ranks with the greatest portraits ever painted. It's very hard to get a good likeness ... Bacon was a brilliant artist but he couldn't draw."

And so Mr Boyd continued in this curiously retrogressive, Spectator-ish vein, as we paused before a turbulent-looking Seamus Heaney slumped in an armchair ("The face is very well done. Very bardic and magus-like"), a hyper-realist Julian Bream by Michael Taylor ("Thoroughly finished, very well painted. But why is the guitar case open so close to his knees?") and a terrific Maggi Hambling self-portrait showing the artist in mid- creation, with a nude model, a cat, a bloated fish, an attendant card player and a huge teapot. She has given herself three arms (to wield, respectively, a drink, a fag and a paintbrush) and her right eye is obliterated by the flight of a seagull. Boyd is not keen. "Well, it's obviously a glimpse into the Hambling psyche," he says, "though there's also a lot of the painter-and-model genre going on, too. But I'm afraid I will never penetrate the symbolism of the man with the yellow socks and the Ace of Clubs."

His tone implies he has better things to do. Handsome, ironic, bulky and rather dashingly unshaven, Boyd is a comfortable figure these days, his new novel, Armadillo, at the top of the bestseller lists, a large and swooning fan club newly satisfied. And his responses to certain artworks are slightly middle-aged. He talks of "painterly qualities" and Paul Valery's contention that a painter has "to struggle to become a virtuoso". That word recurs again and again in his conversation. "Virtuosity is a quite unfashionable or even redundant idea nowadays, when you find art in photographs and video cameras and installations. But these touchstones of technical ability are still valuable when we come to personal gradings of art." But, surely, I said, it's the brain of the modern artist that ... "The fact that Jackson Pollock was hopeless at drawing," said Boyd with asperity, "says a lot about his work. I think Action Painting [the fling-and-dribble style of Pollock's mature works] came along just at the right time."

It's surprising to find this call-me-old-fashioned routine coming from Mr Boyd. For he is right at the cutting edge of trendy art debate. He sits on the editorial board of Modern Painters magazine, a quarterly journal edited by Karen Wright. It's full of stylish writing (often by British poets and novelists, such as Julian Barnes, Jamie McKendrick, Craig Raine and Boyd himself) that's some way removed from the obscurities of Art Crit, and its roll-call of contributors and advisers is Intellectual A- list. The board features, alongside Boyd, Howard Jacobson, Jeremy Isaacs, Lord Gowrie, Richard Wollheim and David Bowie. One of the highlights of a 1994 issue was Bowie's 25,000-word face-to-face interview with the French painter, Balthus.

The past 10 days have been hectic for Modern Painters and all who sail in her. They've been whooping it up with the arty set in the Big Apple and the Big Smoke, launching a special "New York Issue" and, alongside it, a slim monograph on a little-known American painter, entitled Nat Tate, An American Artist: 1928-1960. It's the second production from "21", the publishing firm set up last year by Bowie. The Manhattan launch party was held in Jeff Koons's gallery on Houston Street and Broadway. In front of Koons's sculpture of a kitten in a sock, Julian Schnabel and Frank Stella rubbed shoulders with the novelist Paul Auster and the gallery owner Holly Solomon (the Holly who, in Lou Reed's song, "came from Miami, Fla"). Michael Palin was there, too, and Bowie's extraterrestrial wife Imam took photographs.

It wasn't unlike the kind of party you'd have tried to crash at the Cedar Tavern, Greenwich Village, in the mid-Fifties when, according to Elaine de Kooning, "the whole art world went on a long, long bender", the era when her husband, and Pollock and Franz Kline hung out with the poets Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, and thought they were changing the course of art history. William Boyd's little book concerns one of this abstract- expressionist throng, Nat Tate.

It's a brief life (the book is 60 pages, with lots of photographs) and a tragic one. Tate was the illegitimate son of a New Jersey maid, brought up, after her death, by a wealthy businessman, then taught by Hans Hofmann, the great disciple of Modernism and exhibited by Janet Felzer, of the Aperto Gallery. His paintings were mysterious productions: a series of 200 drawings based on Hart Crane's poem "The Bridge", a series of "Third Panel Triptychs" (in which the first two panels have been destroyed, removing the causal link that led to the third), a series of "White Buildings" in which the lineaments of a house are enfogged by a layer of white paint. Gore Vidal remembers Tate's drunken inarticulacy at Village debauches. John Richardson, Picasso's biographer, brings up Tate's inconsequential meeting with the great Pablo.

Tate was, in a sense, an Everyman of the Fifties art world, half charlatan, half talented, wholly in the thrall of instant celebrity. The most significant thing about him was the end of his life. After a visit to France, he met Georges Braque and discovered the great Cubist still working on a painting that had taken him 11 years (so far). Back home, stung with inadequacy and remorse, Tate called back all the pictures owned by friends and galleries, saying he needed to "work on them". Instead he burnt the lot and jumped off the Staten Island ferry, leaving a spectacularly eloquent suicide note behind.

Why had Boyd been drawn to write about Tate? "Because I think from Nat Tate's life all kinds of lessons can be drawn that apply to artists generally, and particularly to our contemporary art scene."

I see. And just at that moment, as we stood beside a looming portrait of Derek Jarman, contemplating the peculiar roundedness, the moral suggestiveness of Nat Tate's life, the penny dropped with a resounding clang.

Guess what? He made the whole thing up.

William Boyd invented the doomed Manhattan aesthete. Nat Tate never existed. Nor did his Mum, nor his drowned mysterious Dad. There was no Logan Mountstuart, the garrulous chronicler of Tate's path to extinction, on whose diaries Boyd draws so freely. There was no Windrose House, and consequently no "White Buildings" sequence. Hart Crane existed and wrote "The Bridge", but the drawings from the Bridge sequence are fakes. Gore Vidal was in on the deception, and John Richardson and David Bowie (who contributes a brief introduction and brags about owning one of the only Tates in existence). Even the picture of Braque in his garden isn't a picture of Braque.

Over in Manhattan, for the past fortnight, the art-critical world has been saying, "Tate? Oh yes. Of course it's true he isn't well known. But he's certainly overdue for a retrospective." Apart from watching their discomfiture, why had he done it? Mr Boyd's eternally smiling eyes crinkle with pleasure. "It's a little fable," he said, "for now and for any time. I think it's particularly relevant now, when, almost overnight, people are becoming art celebrities. The first time it happened was in Fifties New York. The artists suddenly found themselves in Life magazine, earning lots of money, becoming feted, living on drugs, booze and groupies. It's not necessarily good for an artist. And I imagined one of them confronted by the example of a giant who'd spent 11 years reworking one picture, and how it might make you - who'd dashed off a painting in a boozy couple of hours - feel a fraud. My hunch is that lots of these new artists have a talent that's too fragile to sustain the expectations, the hype and the glamour."

Boyd got interested in the New York school because of the involvement of poets and writers with the artists. He has written appreciatively about Franz Kline, in whose brutal black slashes he discerns some pleasing associations, but the art of the period isn't the point. "De Kooning is unquestionably a major figure, a virtuoso. Kline and Motherwell and the others are interesting, but my interest isn't in their art as in that moment, to be in New York then, with everything that was going on."

He is intrigued by the historical cross-fertilisation of literature with the other arts, reeling off a litany of painters and composers and writers who hung out meaningfully together. "The Sitwells and William Walton were collaborators. Henry Lamb was a friend of Evelyn Waugh. You had Whistler and Wilde. Fuseli and Blake. Benjamin Henry Haydon with Shelley and Leigh Hunt. And I'm a big fan of Keith Vaughn, the British artist who was also a superb writer. His journals are astonishing." Vaughn is one of a crowd of British painters of the Forties and Fifties (Nash, Sutherland, McBryde) about whose collective "neo-Romantic" reputation Boyd sounds off like a one-man reclamation unit. "British painting is like 20th century British music. We have people like Finzi and Bax and Bliss, whom I think are wonderful, but in world ranking are just not rated. And in the painting of the Forties and Fifties, you had Picasso, Matisse and Braque over in France, but none of the British got a look-in. In fact, the work being done here was fantastically interesting, and was to do with colour and virtuosity, technique and skill. So I have my own little patch of Modern Painters, writing about British art of that era."

This whole encounter with Boyd, you realise, has been a blast at callow modernism and conceptualism, and the airs that their practitioners give themselves. All Boyd's harrumphing about "technical virtuosity" and "formal ability" is an old-fashioned attack on the Nat Tates - then and now - who throw themselves into avantgardisme without learning basic skills. He quotes approvingly Robert Hughes's dictum, "All experimentation starts with formal ability. Make sure you can do everything before you throw the rule book away." Boyd, whose novels are notable for the solidity of their construction, is a damp-eyed humanist when it comes to aesthetics. He believes artists should perfect their hand-eye co-ordination before dabbling in conceptualisation. And he prefers to see the real world represented on canvas. In an essay in Modern Painters, he once wrote, rather boldly, "I would never use the word 'masterpiece' ... about any purely abstract painting". Why not?

"Because I'm a living, breathing, happy, suffering human being and I go to art for some kind of feedback about the human condition. That's why I think I'll always be on the side of representation. There's something lacking in the purely formal. You can analyse what you like about it, but it doesn't amount to very much. You can stand in front of Francois Picabia's Homage to the Square and think, 'Well, it's big and I think I get the point,' but that's the end of the discussion. Whereas" - he waved his hand - "with this Lucian Freud portrait of Jacob, Baron Rothschild, you can respond to the picture in a variety of ways. It's a picture of a human being for a start. It's about human-ness. Listen to pieces of music, or look at a view, or even an installation piece and what moves or exalts or impresses you is something to do with the thing we all share, our wandering through this vale of tears."

The drawings in the Nat Tate book, I said. Did you do them? You're not, by any chance, a frustrated artist yourself? And indeed he is. "Two of my mother's sisters are painters, and they used to take me to art galleries when I was young. One side of the family has a very painterly element in it." At Gordonstoun, aged 16, "I did A-level art a year early and got an A. I thought I'd found my destiny. I talked about going to art school until the parental hand came down." He laughed. "It's pathetic, I realise, to be talking about one's A-level results still, but it's my only excuse for writing about art. And now I write about it, I don't draw or paint any more."

A thought struck me. Could he draw a good likeness? "Yes, I think I could," said William Boyd. And that, in the pages of Nat Tate, is precisely what he has done