If it’s true that you should ‘never judge a book by its cover’, then how should you react to a charming man with a paint brush?
Midlands painter John Myatt looks at least a decade younger than his 67 years and is one of the most affable people I’ve ever met.
Judging by his Provenance exhibition at the Waterhall next to Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, where we meet ahead of a Nintendo art class that John will host himself, he’s one of the most talented, too.
From Monet to Vermeer, Matisse, Velasquez, Giacometti and Nicholson, John’s capacity for embracing and working right across internationally-renowned and sometimes centuries-old styles is breathtaking.
Since I first met both actors in their own late middle age, I can vouchsafe for the fact that his magnetic physical presence, look and gentle demeanour floats back and forth between Ian McKellen and Clint Eastwood.
So what’s not to like about this natural born charmer?
Well the Sky Arts presenter was once sentenced to 12 months in Brixton prison for passing off 200 of his own paintings as someone else’s originals and people lost money as a result.
Some may yet do so, since 120 are still missing.
Are we supposed to hate even the most talented of people who’ve tasted ‘porridge’ through their own stupidity?
Or take the sympathetic view of The Lord’s Prayer, ready to ‘forgive those who trespass against us’.
Luckily for Stoke-born John, the policeman who nailed him bang to rights took the latter view.
And the look in the artist’s clear eyes tells me he will be forever grateful.
Funnily enough, the Waterhall is next to the building where his adventure began.
When John was living in Lichfield, he says he would travel to Birmingham every weekend to study the paintings on display by the pre-Raphaelites and artists like Pissarro. It fuelled a passion which turned into quite a skill. Undetectable fakery.
From going to art school in Stafford in 1962, John had begun teaching art in Wilnecote, Tamworth from 1968.
“In those days studying art, you would get technical instruction which, I think, is a good thing,” he says.
“I’ve always been interested in how you do things. I would take a clock to bits to see what made it tick. It was a fascination.” Almost two decades later in 1986, when he was struggling to raise his two children on an art teacher’s wage, Myatt placed an advert in Private Eye offering genuine “19th and 20th century fakes for £200”.
They were not replicas but works that the likes of Monet or Picasso might have painted “if they had had time”.
Claiming to be a nuclear physicist, impressed customer John Drewe commissioned Myatt to produce a number of paintings, which he later had valued at Christie’s in London for £25,000.
This, admits Myatt, “was the moment the legitimate business stopped and the crime began” as the pair went into business together, selling off works through leading auction houses in London and New York. Drewe kept most of the £1.8 million proceeds for himself, but they were both convicted of fraud and Myatt was sentenced to 12 months in Brixton prison.
Drewe served two years and earlier this year was jailed for another eight years after a court case in which Judge Alasdair Darroch told the conman: “In my view you are about the most dishonest and devious person I have ever dealt with.”
Today, John Myatt is determined to keep on the straight and narrow. His legitimate fakes are signed (for example) like Monet but are clearly marked “John Myatt: Genuine Fakes” on the back.
“Even people lucky enough to own a £2 million original typically often can’t display it on their walls, for insurance reasons,” says John.
“So it seems such a shame to have something so beautiful hidden away in the bank.”
While the day he was sent down was far worse than coming back out in June, 1999, it’s equally true to say that John was fearful of where freedom might take him.
But only for 24 hours.
Det Sgt Jonathan Searle was offering a £5,000 commission for John to paint his family.
Other policemen from the arts and antiques division at Scotland Yard took the same route and soon John had the money to get his life back on track.
Still incredulous at the generosity of those who had helped to send him to prison, John says: “Just the day after I came out, Jonathan said to me: ‘Let me commission you to paint my family portrait – I’ll pay you £5,000.
“By the end of ‘99, I had £10,000 in the bank, all legitimately earned.”
Today, Jonathan is even assisting the producers who are going to make a film about his story.
“Hopefully, they’ll be shooting at the end of next year and a lot of it should be in the Midlands.”
The film will be an American-British co-production and feature John’s own paintings.
“I’m hoping that afterwards they will give them back to me,” says John.
“Or at least give them to my children.”
Now based back in Staffordshire, John has two of his own and three step-children by second-wife Rosemary. They range in age from 26 to 33.
“I am now in a wonderful position to do some good, like by doing paintings for Help the Heroes,” says John.
“I think the public likes to see people who have made a mistake claw their way back.
“That’s why I was lucky with the coppers who were at the end of their careers and were retiring.
“They all said: ‘We want to give this guy a break’ and knew, then, that they could cut me a bit of slack.”
Recalling his first day in prison, John admits that going inside was ‘horrible’.
“Brixton is not a particularly nice place. I was in a Category B area with two other guys, then I got my own cell. E wing was a more open dormitory and I did get pencils, but not sharpeners. You had to go up to the ones you could turn and the police sent me sketchbooks.
“Prisoners were asking me for portraits and they just want something that looks like them, but I was drawing police officers as well as ‘cons’... which was against the rules!
“I’ve learned a lot from the likes of Monet and Nicholson but to be able to work in your own style is brilliant, lovely and exciting.
“When you are working on a painting, you are working alone by yourself and, in my case, in quite a confined space.
“Provenance is the biggest exhibition I’ve ever done and you don’t realise until you see it in a hall like this just how much you have done and how much impact it has on other people. I don’t suppose I will ever have this experience again.”
As frequently reflected in many of the Provenance paintings, John’s favourite period is the early 20th century.
“At heart, I just admire quality painting,” he says. “Technical ability. I love it. With paintings, I’d think: ‘How did he get that effect?’
“Seeing a painting in ‘the flesh’ is crucial.”
But what can’t this man of many brushes not do?
“I couldn’t do a painting like William Holman Hunt simply because of the time – he used to take 18 months to two years to finish a painting and I haven’t got the time to do that.”
The beauty of Art Academy is that anyone finish their latest masterpiece in just an hour.
“The makers are trying to introduce a level of complexity into the programme so that a slightly more sophisticated measure can be achieved with this machine,” says John.
“With paintings like Girl With a Pearl Earring (Vermeer) and The Japanese Bridge (Monet) you can create a really good quality likeness and then post it online to your friends and others around the world.
“It also take you step-by-step through the process of completing the painting.
“That’s what’s really good about it – you can see how Vermeer would have created it himself.
“I’m convinced the ‘Girl’ is Vermeer’s daughter. You can also choose when you ‘dry’ the painting as well and all the things that painters can do.”
Within minutes, John is teaching a class full of strangers how to paint.
Or at least how to use a prod a stylus on a Nintendo 3DS armed with Art Academy.
His mood remains gentle.
His advice warm, clear and eye-opening. The enthusiasm from his new charges, palpable.
“Once you let the machine help you, it’s OK,” he says.
“Remember that blues are recessive, browns advance. You need warm colours for the face. A watery, pinky red.
“You can soften and smooth light into the dark using a dry brush.”
Half way through the course, he kindly sends Nintendo PR girl Steph round the corner to Starbucks for lattes all round.
And if you want to make a real painting look old?
Well, if you are brave enough, you can always just pour your coffee over it...