28 Nov 2013

Bob. (Robert Thwaites).

I knew him as Bob. I leave it to the curious to search the web if they wish to identify the person the UK press would come to label the “Britain’s most notorious living art forger” who “conned Antiques Roadshow host”.

Bob was one of my flatmates during the years we attended Liverpool Art College. I made few friends in Liverpool, and kept in touch with none, but Bob was the one I spent most time with, and with whom I had the most in common.

A year younger than myself, Bob sported the post-hippie beard prevalent amongst students in the early 1970s. Tall, of stocky build without an ounce of fat, he peered short sightedly out at the world over the top of his round spectacles. On those rare occasions when he wasn't drawing, his hands would constantly tap his cord jean thighs in time to the tunes he muttered quietly through his bearded chin. More often than not a selection from Jethro Tull's “Stand Up”, which was always his album of choice on those evenings when it was his turn to use our shared portable record player. But almost all of the time, Bob drew. And drew. And drew. The pen in one hand, the bottle of ink in the other, and the sketchpad on his knees, all seemed like permanent fixtures with which he created black and white worlds of caricature and humour. It was this shared passion for drawing which brought us together, plus our early morning forays across Liverpool searching newsagents for the latest Marvel / DC comics containing the work of Jack Kirby, in a time before specialist comic shops could be found anywhere outside of London.

The college lecturers treated Bob with disdain, dismissing his large, slightly splattered sheets of animated figures, whilst advising us all that carefully executed diagrams for “how to tie knots” manuals, and similar mundane illustrations, were a more meaningful career path to follow. But his reputation as a “cartoonist” spread across the campus, gaining favour with fellow students because of its Pythonesque humour. Like Gerald Scarfe on Benzedrine.

One night a knock came at the door. It was a student from the nearby University. We could tell that from his purple corduroy jeans and grey trench coat. “Does the guy who draws cartoons live here?” The student wanted a poster drawn for an upcoming concert at the university hall, the payment for which could stretch to five pounds. Bob, delighted at this bit of recognition, agreed to the job and asked for the name of the band. The student fumbled in his coat pockets for the piece of paper on which he'd written it down. Refreshing his memory, he read aloud: “Supertramp”. Nobody had heard of them before, but we all laughed. Supertramp, what a cool name for a band. The following day the poster was delivered, featuring a suitably super tramp bedecked in ragged gabardine, wine bottle in hand, and a multitude of Monty Python style rats emerging from every fold and pocket.

The great irony is that, considering the criminal reputation Bob's skills would one day gain, at college he couldn't paint to save his life. Neither could his drawing skills adhere to what one might deem a more academic approach to proportion and form. I saw him try, but his patience would always run out. And yet, whilst others would give up art all together for other career paths, he was the one, albeit the lowest graded, who got to put “graphic designer” on his passport.

I don't condone what he did years later. Something about forging a piece of art when you're an artist yourself seems worse than basic theft on a morality scale. And I have even less regard for the so-called expert who purchased his forgery, expecting to sell it on for a huge profit. One has to smile. And I'll bet many a subsequent fellow prison inmate smiled at Bob's portraits of them.

I smile now at my memory of him. One of the few smiles I can muster when looking back on my days in Liverpool. And I smile in particular at the knowledge of what Bob would really have liked to become, as he sat of an evening reading his Thor comics, and dipping the knitting needle he'd pre-heated on the electric fire into his mug of beer, Nordic style. To paraphrase his favourite Monty Python sketch, Bob never wanted to be a graphic designer. He always wanted to be... a Viking.

Top: My 1973 sketch of Bob. Below: Bob's sketch of me (sadly unsigned). Bottom: Bob as I always remember him.

Edit: Robert "Bob" Thwaites died far too young in March 2019.

All text, pros, photos & artwork, copyright Ian Gordon Craig.