Picasso once famously described painting as an ‘offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy’. A weapon indeed, but perhaps not the sort one might expect to be found in the hands of a convicted killer. Nevertheless, some might be surprised to hear that infamy and artistry have a long history of collaboration, and the industry even has a name; Murderabilia. Whether it be personal artefacts owned by criminals, or artwork created by them, the market for mobsters, gangsters and serial killers is thriving, with pieces selling for substantial sums at auction.
One such work by Ronnie Kray, the younger of the now notorious Kray twins, considered by many to be the foremost perpetrators of organised crime in the East End of London by the 1960s, is now up for grabs in our next Fine Art and Antiques auction in March. Entitled ‘Charlie on Tractor’ it depicts Ronnie and Reggie’s older brother in a rural idyl, with Ronnie’s trademark white cottage painted in the distance - his notion of an ideal home. The style is naive, childlike even, a technique adopted by both brothers in their art, something which they embarked upon after their imprisonment for murder in 1969.
|Ronnie Kray acrylic on canvas, dated 1971, Parkhurst Prison|
Titled to the reverse 'Charlie on Tractor' beside Ronnie's prison number
The brothers are not alone in their pursuit, Michael Gordon Peterson, better known as Charles Bronson, and more recently Charles Salvador (in reverence to Salvador Dali) is also a keen artist. His darkly humorous paintings, drawings and poetry being both exhibited and sold during his tenure in prison. Used occasionally as part of psychotherapy, in some instances art can be deployed as a means of self-expression and communication, and as a result may be viewed upon as an insight into the criminal mind; studying what their subconscious prompted them to paint or draw. Although one must be mindful of over-indulging in cod psychology, as tempting as it seems.
|A drawing by Charles Salvador (Bronson) sold in 2014|
The criminal artist is certainly not a new phenomenon, Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) the Italian revolutionary painter was constantly in trouble for his aggressive ways on the mean streets of early 17th Century Rome, where sword fights were common practice. Inevitably he killed a man in a duel on a piazza and fled, and his subsequent works seem haunted by the shadows they populate. Richard Dadd, the 19th Century popular painter of fairy-folk produced many of his masterpieces whilst in hospital, receiving treatment for what the Victorian’s dubbed an ‘unsound mind’, now schizophrenia, following the murder of his own father in 1843. Today graffiti artists create masterpieces, their nature in pure defiance of the law, with Banksy making a career from stencilling places that he shouldn’t. A small part of his allure is driven by his anonymity, and his ability to evade capture and conviction, his real name rumoured to be ‘Robin Banks’ (ahem). He is the cloaked political artist of the day, or hi-viz should we say, given Banksy’s penchant for ‘hiding in plain sight’.
|Caravaggio David with the Head of Goliath, 1607 |
Kunsthistorisches Museum Gemäldegalerie, Vienna
E.H Gombrich summed it up in the opening chapter of his seminal book The Story of Art, declaring ‘There is no such thing as art. There are only artists’. This is certainly the case when placing a value on art at auction, where you may hear the term ‘form’ banded about. This simply refers to the artist’s oeuvre, or body of work if you prefer, and the impact the artist has made on the world. That’s why my paint splashes don’t have quite the same gravitas as those produced by Jackson Pollock.
At the end of the day the market is the ultimate arbiter, and in this case it has well and truly spoken. Specialist websites for such material have sprang up in recent years, and in 2009 eight paintings by the Kray brothers sold for an astonishing £12,200 at auction. ‘Charlie on Tractor’ carries a more modest pre-sale estimate of £200-400 in our March 14th auction.