The Case of the Problematic Charles Blackman Paintings Pt. 1

The Case of the Problematic Charles Blackman Paintings Pt. 1
The two paintings in question (detail)

The discovery of two paintings allegedly painted by artist Franki Birrell in the 1980’s that were subsequently sold by auction house Deutscher and Hackett in 2011 as the work of Charles Blackman has caused ripples in the Australian art world.

In this two-part investigation, Nicholas Forrest, Executive Editor of Australia, will reveal the truth behind this saga using exclusive interviews with Genevieve de Couvreur, Charles Blackman’s second wife, as well as the artist’s daughter Christabel Blackman.

It all began on the 28th of April 2012 when Christabel Blackman identified two paintings listed on the Deutscher and Hackett website that she believed were incorrectly sold as having been painted by her father. The paintings in question are titled Girl Behind a Shower Screen and Girl With a Starry Dress Bouquet.

As a recognised expert in the work of Charles Blackman, Christabel should rightly know when a painting attributed to her father is not by him – and in this instance, a number of stylistic anomalies were the determining factor.

“Some of the most obvious differences are that Franki’s (Franki Birrell) compositions are simplistic and contrived, the brushwork laboured and unsure; the colours are flat and unmixed,” Christabel reveals.

A close friend of Charles and his second wife Genevieve, Franki Birrell started painting in the 1980’s with Charles as her artistic mentor.  According to Genevieve, “The works she produced at that time do reflect her admiration for his work.”

Genevieve was first alerted to the potentially problematic works in early May when she received an email from Charles Blackman expert Walter Granek asking for her opinion on a couple of paintings, one of which was allegedly a painting of her.  Upon viewing the paintings, Genevieve “knew straight away that these works were not painted by Charles.”

“I knew all the work that he had painted at the time and they were also clearly painted by an amateur. The work was familiar to me and I thought of Franki,” recalls Genevieve.

Genevieve emailed Walter Granek straight away informing him that Franki Birrell was definitely the artist who painted these works but never had a response from him.  She then rang Tom Lowenstein, Charles' accountant, who employs Walter Granek as a Blackman expert, informing him that these works were definitely not by Charles.

Having assumed that the issue would be taken care of, Genevieve “received a call from Christabel Blackman late last week saying that nothing in fact had been done about these paintings and that they were still with the current owners who had still not been informed.”

In a statement provided to Australia, Genevieve states that she is “absolutely appalled that nothing has been done.”

When contacted by Fairfax Media, Deutscher and Hackett executive director Damian Hackett was apparently ''dumbfounded''.  Hackett “insisted he had relied on the advice of the Blackman Trust to authenticate the works, and said they had followed a 'rigorous process’ to ensure they were genuine,” Fairfax reported.

The case is currently in the hands of lawyers representing Franki Birrell – Aston Legal Solicitors and Barristers – who are investigating the case and are currently pursuing the matter in the Federal Court of Australia. Hugo Aston, director of Aston Legal Solicitors and Barristers, is Christabel Blackman's partner and also acts as an art dealer through his company Aston Blackman.

Part 2 of this investigation will reveal more specific details of the paintings in question and how they came to be incorrectly attributed to Charles Blackman.