I’m in love with Eric Hebborn but my darling husband need not worry as Eric is quite quite dead. Why am I in love with him? Well, first of all he was a charming rogue and a talented artist who fooled the experts into thinking his drawings were those of old great masters. He also lived a rich and full life rising from being abused as a child, and ending up in what here we in America would refer to as reform school, for setting his grade school on fire. He had matches only as he discovered he could burn them down a bit and use them for drawing at a young age. He was accused of having them for ill, and caned for it and so wrongly accused, he did the deed. He managed to rise above many obstacles put in his way and unique opportunities shaped his destiny.
He speaks in his book, Drawn to Trouble, that he was working learning how to restore paintings, as a part time job, while he was in Art School. He was given jobs that were more and more complicated until, as he says in his book he was able to restore an entire painting “from nothing at all”.
He was eventually found out as a forger. But did he go to jail? No! He never presented his drawings as those of a valuable piece of art by a famous and collectible old master. What he did was go to the experts and say, I have this drawing, who do YOU think did it? And then they would happily declare he had found a valuable piece of work. Often Eric would craft a piece of work so it would fit into a series done by that artist. So it wasn’t really a copy, but a drawing done in the style of, and at the same expert level as the master. Now if he signed it Eric Hebborn, it was worth anything, but if he didn’t sign it, and maybe put an old collectors mark on it and it logically fit into a historical sequence by that artist, the expert was very happy to make his discovery of yet another old master drawing.
Then he would go to Christie’s or another London auction house and ask if they would like to buy this drawing that expert X attributed to a great artist. Mind you they would buy it from him for a pittance compared to what they would sell it for. But in the end everyone was happy. The collector had something he thought was valuable to add to his collection, the auction house made money, and Eric made money.
But wait a minute, this got me thinking. No, no, no, not about a career as a forger, but art. The worth of art. Why certain artists are famous or successful and others not. Part of it is the culture and value of the times. And the tastes of a population and the economics of who is in power and has the wealth, the power and the desire to sponsor and buy art.
If the lines of a Piranesi’s famous etching from the year 1750: “From a great harbour in Roman history” had graceful lines of an angle of thus and so and shading in a certain manner and Eric Hebborn’s original drawing in the style of Piranesi also is as beautiful and graceful, as art, how is it different. Forget for a moment the signature, just think of looking at the lines. Is it lovely, is it beautiful, does it have worth in and of itself?
Eric Hebborn writes in his book, “The first invariable rule is to never invest in art-buy it! Money wrongly invested will sour your interest, but money paid for something you really enjoy (and people who do not enjoy art have no right to own it) is always money well spent. And should one day, some stuffy expert try to spoil your pleasure by informing you, you have bought a fake, point to Sir Ernest Gombrich’s observations on page 357 of this book and tell him or her in no uncertain terms that there is no such thing as a fake, only fake experts and their fake labels.”
What Gombich says in Art and Illustration, quoted on page 357 of Drawn to Trouble is:
“Logicians tell us, and they are not people who can be easily gainsaid, that the terms ‘true’ and ‘false’ can only be applied to statements, propositions. And whatever may be the usage of critical parlance, a picture is never a statement in that sense of the term. It can no more be true or false than a picture can be blue or green. Much confusion has been caused in aesthetics by ignoring this simple fact. It is an understandable confusion because in our culture pictures are usually labelled, and labels, or captions can be understood as abbreviated statements. When it is said ‘the camera cannot lie’, this confusion is apparent. Propaganda in wartime often made the use of photographs falsely labelled to accuse or exculpate one of the warring parties. Even in scientific illustrations it is the caption which determines the truth of the picture. In a cause celebre of the last century, the embryo of a pig labelled as a human embryo to prove the theory of evolution, brought about the downfall of a great reputation. Without much reflection, we can all expand into statements the laconic captions we find in museums and books. When we read the name ‘Ludwig Richter’ under a landscape painting, we know we are thus informed that he painted it and can begin arguing whether this information is true or false. When we read ‘Tivoli’, we infer the picture is to be taken as a view of that spot, and we can then agree or disagree with the label.”
Eric comments on Gombrich’s writing as follows in his book:
“From which it follows that it is the labelling, and only the labelling, of a picture, which can be false, contrary to popular belief there is not, and can never be a false painting or drawing, or for that matter any other work of art. A drawing is as surely a drawing as a rose is a rose is a rose, and the only thing that may possibly be false about it is its label – its attribution. What a relief this truth should be for the art world! No longer need the expert, the collector, or anybody worry about fakes. Al we need worry about now is education the experts to attach the right label: “Tom Keating in the manner of ‘Samuel Palmer’, ‘Michelangelo in the manner of the antique’, ‘Andrea del Sarto in the manner of Raphael’, ‘Anonymous twentieth-centrury artist in the manner of Claude’, and so on.”
Oh my, that must have made a few art experts and art historians say “ouch” and squirm a bit. For with all the reasons why he believed this, and how he benefited from such belief there is a kernel of truth in it.
But did he really do the world any disfavor? Did he not add to the world’s collection of beautiful art? Dennis Dutton writes in his online article “Death of a Forger“:
“The greatest crime Hebborn committed does not involve the misfortunes of the rich in their attempt to use Old Masters as secure investments. It is rather that there are now, thanks to him, hundreds of fake “Master Drawings” in private and public collections. Art is not just about beautiful things, it is about the visions of the world recorded in centuries past. Now the drawn record of those visions has been corrupted by the skill and subterfuge of a talented contemporary faker.”
So Eric, may have changed history. Tweaked it just a little with his view of how the world should have, or might have looked. But don’t all artists do that? A tree is in the way of the view, poof, gone in the painting but there in reality. And how many people have hanging on their walls portraits of incredibly ugly ancestors? Surely more often than not the portrait artist made them a little more noble, a little bit prettier, a trifle younger? But right or wrong, I must thank Eric Hebborn for making me think about art, the worth of art, the motivation behind making art and the weight of the opinions of the experts du jour.
But at the end of the day, he did set up the experts when he presented the art to them. He did draw in the style that they wanted to see and presented them with art that logically fit into a sequence. He also obtained paper from the correct era. If he was drawing in the style of an artist from the 1700’s he used paper from the fly leaf of a book from that time or an old ledger. When tested for age and authenticity, the paper passed all tests for age and his inks or paints that he either bought old pigments or made himself according to original recipes also passed.
He also wrote The Art Forger’s Handbook that I have also read. It is more of a cookbook on how to make ink and how to age paper and so forth. But I found it fascinating and he has all sorts of wonderful little comments and anecdotes sprinkled within. I admit, I have a yen to try some of his recipes, just for the fun of it.
Once, an artist had to know the chemistry of painting. A certain ground would cause their work to deteriorate. Two pigments used next to each other, would eventually turn black and ruin the work. I am reading some further works, one by Max Dorner as well. He wrote “The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting: With Notes on the Techniques of the Old Masters.” It’s a bit heavy going, but art school once included mastering all the substances that were used in painting and how one reacted or not with one another. Being able to go into a store or online and buy tube after tube of paint in any color I want is a luxury that once didn’t exist.
I have to stop and wonder, if some of the great old masters, could have just been presented with paint that didn’t have to be ground and prepared and prepared surfaces to paint on, rather than having to prepare their own, how many more great works we would have seen. But also, because it was so labor intensive, perhaps they only gave their best effort at all times. If they did have modern paint and canvas, perhaps although they produced more, it would not have meant better.
Today I can paint on a whim. And sometimes when I am painting without much planning or thought that is exactly how it looks in the end. A little slap-dash and disorganized. But I learn from each painting I make. I wish I could see a year down the road. Do I get better? Do I develop a style? I don’t know.
Eric Hebborn wanted to write two more books, but he was murdered. Most likely because the discovery of his fakes caused the experts to question more paintings as to whether they were real. There was a Rembrandt in a museum that was originally valued at $40 million, and once the experts said it was not a Rembrandt it’s value went down to $4 million.
I am sad that he wasn’t able to write those books. I would have enjoyed reading them. One was to be on drawing, a book on the language of line. He really understood. He even gives examples in his book of the same simple line drawn at different speeds, something you might not think of and how the speed effects the appearance of the line. And how a copy of a drawing, can be detected as a copy when the lines are drawn at a slower or faster pace than those of the original artist.
Update 2016: Eric Hebborn did produce a manuscript on line, or at least started to write one. It was bought by a private collector from Webbs of Wilton, in Wiltshire, UK for 3000 pounds. A recent article in the Guardian quotes him as mocking the so called experts, “He writes: “On the whole, critics, connoisseurs and art historians, when obliged to go beyond statements of fact – such as authorship, subject matter, measurement and medium – and speak of the quality of the drawing, tend to do so in the vaguest of terms.”
One of my readers sent me a photo of the first page of the language of line that I am going to attribute to this auction catalog.
So if you, like me, yearn to read the language of line, here is one tantalizing page:
And I’m going to add a special request to the buyer of the manuscript “The Language of Line” by Eric Hebborn, please publish it, scan it and put it on the web, but do make it available to artists in some form. He knew something special about line and I do not wish this knowledge to be lost. Webbs of Wilton only listed 8 pages. I secretly hope there is a hidden box somewhere with more pages.
Why was Eric murdered? Was it a disgruntled expert, upset by his tell all book? Perhaps he cast his eyes on the wrong person, and it was a crime of passion or even mistaken jealousy. Or maybe he just wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time.
All of my drawing books recommend that you copy well known artists to learn to draw and see how they treat their subjects. How they shade and so forth. One of which they recommend is two studies of Saskia Sleeping by Rembrandt. The lines are simple. And yet so elegant. No matter how I try, although I can copy the shape and the form there is something to the speed of how the line is drawn and just a quality I cannot capture. The squiggle of the eyebrow on the face gives a sweetness to the face. I was using an image in the book Keys to Drawing but the original image is found in the Pierpont Morgan. Well, we think it is a Rembrandt, but there was a Cossa at the Pierpont Morgan later attributed to Hebborn. So let’s try to copy this drawing currently attributed to Rembrandt. And here it is. Try it yourself. Make a copy.
But Eric was in good company. If you study the history of art, we find Roman sculptors copied Greek sculpture and sold it as Greek. During the Renaissance many painters sold the works of their apprentices as payment for teaching them their techniques and they were attributed to the master. In 1496, the great Michelangelo made a copy of a cupid and treated it with acidic earth to age it. There is an excellent article on Art Forgery in Wikipedia if you want to dig deeper.
Now, how did your copy turn out? Hmmmm. It was harder than you thought it would be wasn’t it? It’s only fair I show you my attempt. I really can’t draw. Painting comes easy to me but drawing I find very difficult. I think we can say with certainty I will not have a career as an art forger. But that is a happy thing.
Original-Tila Sleeping 😀