Songwriter, musician, artist, forger, inmate… John Myatt tells Shelley Carter how his mind-boggling story unfolded
John Myatt’s story sounds fantastical and far-fetched. The idea that one man could have lurched from a number one hit single to supply teaching to art forgery, followed by a stint in Brixton prison and then legitimate critical acclaim from the art world with his own TV series is absurd, but true. John grew up in Staffordshire with his staunch socialist father and not-so socialist mother – “she tolerated his leftness” – and gained a scholarship to a cathedral school in Worcester boarding from the age of eight. Born pitch perfect, John was destined to be musical and pursued a career in song writing in London enjoying a number one hit, Silly Games, in 1979. Earning a nice living through advances and royalties, John decided he’d had enough of life in the capital and returned home to the Midlands where life began to unravel dramatically.
John’s record company went bankrupt and his wife left him with their two babies. “It was tough. A friend in the village offered to care for the children while I started teaching art at a local school. It was a bit basic, but I enjoyed it and being a supply teacher I never had to do any of the planning – generally you’re covering for someone who has already done that. So at 3.30pm I was out of the door.” The money wasn’t great though and John was eager to do more. He placed an advertisement in Private Eye offering genuine fakes for £150 to £200 which provided a welcome extra income. One of his regular customers, Professor John Drewe bought 14 paintings over the next two years which boosted the finances. In 1986 John created a piece in the style of cubist painter Albert Glazes for Drewe which prompted a surprising chain of events. “I got a phone call saying the painting had been valued by Sotheby’s at £25,000 and would I like to go halves.” Half was almost the same as John’s teaching salary and he accepted.
Myatt began crafting actual forgeries rather than legitimate fakes while the seller of that first ‘forgery’, Prof Drewe, dealt with the sales operation. John was used to working in acrylics but started to use all kinds of unorthodox materials such as household emulsion and KY jelly to get the paintings looking authentic, paying as much attention to the back as the front of the ‘masterpieces.’ “You can tell more about the authenticity of a painting from the back than the front often.” Drewe proved to be a slippery associate though keeping much of the money for him and in 1993 with 200 successful forgeries under his belt John put an end to the fraud that Scotland Yard named ‘the biggest art fraud of the 20th Century’. In 1995, one of Drewe’s exes blew the whistle and the police caught up with them launching what was to be a four-year investigation. Myatt helped the police with their investigation which saw his 12-month sentence reduced to just four for good behaviour. Of prison life John said: “The first 48 hours were horrible, but once I’d settled in it wasn’t so bad. It’s the bit when I was sentenced and led away that was the worst part. There were people coming off drugs and screaming.” John drew portraits in prison and helped other inmates write letters of appeal. “I made some good friends. It’s the noisy people – the ones who complain that get into trouble. I just kept my head down.” And of Drewe? “He went to prison too, in fact I think he’s back inside now.” Having vowed never to paint again, John left prison and began planning an exhibition in London.
Without an agent he managed to pull off a successful show that sold out. “I was lucky to find an empty gallery in Dover Street that was perfect, but it’s hard without an agent.” At the exhibition John met Brummie art buff and gallery owner Glynn Washington who liked what he saw. That relationship blossomed and John is now signed to Washington Green. “They’re great because they love art – they are not just suits. I come to them with an idea and they say yes sounds great let’s do it.” Through Washington Green John exhibited at the Waterhall Gallery at BMAG which was a particular highlight. In fact life is pretty peachy all round. A rural farm house, a studio in the garden, his ‘lovely’ wife Rosemary, an exciting project in Mallorca, TV work (he’s already had a series on Sky painting portraits of famous people like Stephen Fry and Myleene Klass in the style of the great masters such as Velázquez and Vermeer)… , a book…..what next? Hollywood? You think I’m kidding!