It’s a Constable – but not the one you know – in a new show of forged art
A Constable seascape that will hang in London’s Courtauld gallery this summer shows sailboats and a steam vessel bobbing on a choppy sea beneath one of the artist’s typical imposing skies.
Except this Constable is not all it seems. Experts at the gallery found incriminating evidence in a cut-off paper watermark, “184-”, meaning that the paper dates from at least the 1840s, years after the artist died in 1837.
Its authenticity had not been doubted because it came from an impeccable source – John Constable’s daughter, Isabel. Now it is thought to have been painted by one of his sons, Lionel or Alfred. Ordinarily, a forgery is not something a gallery would want to boast about, but the Courtauld has decided to stage an innovative exhibition of the forgeries in its collection. The Constable watercolour is one of up to 25 drawings and six paintings that will be displayed this summer, revealing the stories behind their making and the discoveries of deception.
Explaining the rationale for the exhibition, Rachel Hapoienu, the Courtauld’s drawings cataloguer, said: “Any kind of hallowed institution is not infallible. We want to be more transparent about that. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to admit that you have forgeries. There have always been people who’ve been taken in by forgeries. In fact, many forgers were great artists in their own right.”
She said that the quality of the Constable “is not great” but that it had escaped any scrutiny because it came directly from the artist’s family. “It went to various dealers, ending up with one in Munich from whom a collector who donated it to us bought it. Each dealer emphasised that it came directly from Isabel. It transpires that quite a lot of Constable forgeries came from Isabel. Whether they were perpetrating a fraud intentionally is a sticky question. It could have been an honest mistake. But when you’re looking at thousands of drawings, are you going to try to be that accurate when you know that your father’s name carries great weight and your brother’s name carries none?”
The exhibition, Art and Artifice: Fakes from the Collection, running from 17 June to 8 October, will include a study of a man’s head that is no longer attributed to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, the French master. Hapoienu said: “It is signed and dated ‘Roma 1834’, but we confirmed that the handwriting does not match his, [and] he did not go to Rome in 1834.”
Other exhibits will include a seated female nude “in the manner of” Auguste Rodin, by one of four main forgers who capitalised on the French master’s popularity in the early 20th century. Hapoienu said: “There are a number of sheets with his style of imitating Rodin, including the way he fakes the signature. It has to do with the line and the way he rendered the anatomy.”
The exhibition was inspired by research into 11 old master drawings, including four by Tiepolo, three by Guardi, and a Virgin and Child by Michelangelo. Doubts arose about these in 1998 after an anonymous caller claimed that they were by the British forger Eric Hebborn, who died in 1996 in mysterious circumstances, having duped experts worldwide, boasting that only a small number of his fakes had been uncovered.
“Since 1998, there’s been a question mark hanging over them,” said Hapoienu. “A lot of the new research has been looking into these drawings. Now, with six of them, I’ve traced the provenance earlier than Hebborn, to the 1930s. So we can say they’re certainly not by him. There are still five that we don’t have a definitive answer on.”
Among the paintings, the exhibition will show seven forgeries in the Courtauld’s collection, including A Religious Procession, an oil painting on oak panel, copied from a now-lost larger painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, known through copies by his sons.
Tests revealed pigments that were unavailable in the 16th century, and it is thought to have been forged in the 1920s.