A Portrait of the millionaire as an Artist
Critics and snooty galleries turn their noses up at Jack Vettriano, and, while his popular paintings earn him a fortune, he does rankle at the snobbery of it all
Any anthology of contemporary insults would surely contain those lobbed at the self-taught painter Jack Vettriano. He has been called the Jeffrey Archer of the art world. A purveyor of “dim erotica”. A dabbler in “badly conceived soft porn”. A painter who “just colours in”. Most cutting of all, the critic Duncan Macmillan delivered the patronising one-liner: “He’s welcome to paint so long as nobody takes him seriously.”
Launching another sell-out exhibition of his new work in London earlier this month, Vettriano, one of the few artist millionaires in existence, can afford to thumb his nose at all this. .”
His paintings fetch between £300,000 and £500,000 at auction and up to £130,000 from a gallery. His most popular piece of schmaltz, The Singing Butler, made £744,800 at Sotheby’s two years ago. Three million posters of his dancers in evening dress on a wet beach are brightening the lives of what the art establishment regards as the undiscerning masses. .”
“I can only be proud that it’s touched so many people… and made me a fortune along the way,” Vettriano says. “If you’re sitting in Grimsby on a wet Tuesday afternoon and you’ve got that on your wall, you can drift away.” .”
He doesn’t need to be upset by “nobby academics” and their put-downs. Yet they nag away. Disparagement on this scale saps his spirit, and some days he wakes up angry. He still finds Macmillan’s comment breathtakingly arrogant. “I thought it was thuggery. It was personal. It was awful.” .”
It’s as if Vettriano has found himself forced to compete in the wrong football league and got rubbished for a poor performance. “I have to have something going for me,” he says mildly. “I’m not in the same league as Lucien Freud or Francis Bacon. I know my place, and it isn’t up there. But I am popular and it grieves me that some people associate popularity with trash. It’s a terribly snobbish view.” .”
A special room dedicated to the Vettriano oeuvre has just opened at the Portland Gallery in London, possibly the nearest he will get to museum status, since none of the national art collections will hang his work. (There is one Vettriano picture in a local authority collection in Scotland – in his home town, Kirkcaldy.) It is the first permanent display of Vettrianos, showing his development from a man who couldn’t paint faces (hence all those back views) to a consummate poster-maker. “I just regard it as wee bits of wall decoration,” he says with the faux self-deprecation of a man who knows he is outselling everybody else on the block. “I don’t think I’m changing people’s philosophy of life or anything. Christ, I’m just a working man like other men are. I take my skill to the market place and I try to get the best price for it. I’m just a tradesman. I’m not going to pretend it’s anything more intellectual.” .”
He suspects it’s working to his advantage to be ostracised by the art establishment because it makes the public want to side with him even more. People do not like to be told they lack taste. “I am the first to confess my work is absolutely accessible. You don’t need to stand on your head to see it.” .”
He trades in escapism and sexual fantasy. Most of his pictures are of romantic couplings in unromantic settings, the claustrophobic suggestiveness of vampy women and furtive men. His dark interiors are heavy with the old-fashioned accoutrements of seduction – suspenders, basques, high heels, red lipstick, military uniform (worn by women) dangling bow-ties and undone double cuffs. It’s the adult version of a taste he developed in pre-pubescence when he used to gawp at the painted street women hanging about Methil docks, near where he grew up. .”
The purveyors of Vettriano posters think his work is “nice and comfortable and slightly saucy, a reminder of times gone by”. But that is not what’s currently on show in the paintings. His exhibition is called Love, Devotion and Surrender, but while there are scenes of bondage and eroticism, there is no picture suggesting love. .”
“People like sex,” he says. “They like that erotic stuff. They see a part of themselves in it. They can step into it, step back out. Sensuous people like my work. A lot of what I paint are women’s fantasies. They have a massive range of fantasies, you know. In comparison, men’s are pretty pathetic.” .”
Is he the man in his pictures? “Always.” .”
And the women? He uses models, usually aged between 25 and 35. If the couple in his picture are touching, we can infer that he has painted them from a photograph taken of himself and a model by a third party. If they are not, Vettriano and his model will have taken photos of one another and he puts them together in paint.
Vettriano is 54, tall and well preserved, but conscious that his body is not what it was. It has a tendency to “love handles” and looks best in low light. He’s vain enough to want to remain attractive to women, so he exercises and wears black because it has a slimming effect.
“The amount of paint I am having to put on the canvas to disguise myself is getting ridiculous,” he says. “I don’t want to fall into the trap of young girl and lecherous old man. I’m going to have to find a male model.” Vettriano has been accused of being a misogynist
. Far from it, he says. Women have always been his muse. He idealises them, especially women who are aware of their sexual prowess and are happy to use it. “I’ve always liked that in women, women who play the game.”
Personally, though, he sounds like a bad risk, addicted as he is to the honeymoon period and scared of domesticity.
He has just bought an apartment off the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, and this has introduced a healthier, more modern element to his work – bunting in the breeze, azure sea, bronzed girls sitting on motorbikes, sassy girls using a telephone booth. We look at a painting of a woman on a balcony – or, more precisely, a woman’s legs. Part of her right arm is visible and she’s nonchalantly holding a cigarette, as most of his men and women do. One leg, ending in black, high-heeled sandals, is resting on the table, the other on the top rail of the balcony. There are two glasses and an empty wine bottle.
He delivers a little expliqué in case I had missed the point. “That’s my balcony,” he says quietly. “I’ve just gone to get another bottle of wine. I come back. That’s what I see. Her legs are open.” He shakes his head and utters a low note of approval.
Post-preview night, the artist is looking a bit rough, with his pallid skin and deep stubble, but he believes the south of France is doing him good. “I eat better, I’m not so much of a workaholic. I am a heavy smoker and sitting at an easel every day is not good for me. I don’t paint every day any more. I have realised that the market can’t stand it [the market was flooded with Vettrianos after the sale of The Singing Butler] and neither can my health. I am happier to concentrate on quality. I look at some of my earlier work and it doesn’t look finished. That’s because I am more accomplished now than I was then.”
Vettriano isn’t a braggart, but he can’t help making statements that sometimes backfire. He says he knows people are beginning to tire of The Singing Butler (it’s on everything from biscuit tins to mobile phone covers), then adds: “It’s a bit like van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Poppyfields. We have seen it so often, it’s exhausted. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad painting.”
Vettriano worked as an engineer in the mines and didn’t begin to paint until a girlfriend presented him with a box of watercolours for his 21st birthday. At first he copied other artists, wore a smock and acted “like bloody Matisse” in his council house bedroom. An 11-year marriage to Gail Cormack failed soon after his career in art took off.
Nearing his 40th birthday, he decided to cut loose fro
m domesticity, left Scotland and moved to Chelsea. In London, he was taken up by Tom Hewlett of the Portland Gallery, and so began a long partnership that has benefited both men ever since. “If there is anyone who can paint atmosphere better than Jack,” says Hewlett, “I’ve yet to meet him.”
Vettriano would like his work to be shown in one of the Scottish national galleries, but that day seems far off. Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, calls him an “indifferent painter”, skilled at self-publicity. “If a good enough picture were offered to us, we would consider it. But with limited funds at our disposal, he is low down our list of priorities.”
There was a kerfuffle last year when Vettriano was accused of plagiarising from an illustrators’ manual costing £16.99. He was, and still is, understandably upset, arguing that when you have to teach yourself how to paint, manuals are an obvious source of reference. Yes, he took his figures for The Singing Butler from photographs. “But I had to come up with the idea, I had to put them together, I painted the background. To call me a plagiarist was so unfair.”
Calvocoressi says there is nothing wrong with using manuals, but Vettriano has not “transcended the source” and made something new. “That’s what his subjects look like, figures from a manual, lifeless illustrations. They are dead.”
The debate, if that’s what it is, looks set to run: art institutions trying not to appear snobbish but determined to keep Vettriano in his place; Vettriano trying not to appear too bruised as he laughs all the way to the bank in his 1966 Mercedes 250SL.