Because I’m Worth It – interview by Melanie Reid, The Times, 27 August 2007
Jack Vettriano has no truck with artists who resent his success. He just knows how to sell his work
With the ease of a man for whom such things are now second nature, Jack Vettriano lets it be known that he’s playing hard to get. He is considering offers from “several” London art dealers, but he’s not saying which ones: only that he will choose from his suitors early in 2008.
This is an artist, we must remember, whose work now sells routinely for six figures; and whose huge fame is testimony to the value of astute marketing. Self-taught and sneered at by the art establishment, especially in his native Scotland, Vettriano has become arguably one of the best known painters in the world through the sale of reproductions of The Singing Butler – which sold for a record £744,000 in 2004.
Today, Sotheby’s will auction off Vettriano’s “Bluebird Collection” (paintings which hung in the Conran restaurant), predicted to fetch more than £1.2 million.
A gentle, essentially pragmatic man, he is irritated by those who carp at his success. “Artists say, how can I get only X for my work and Vettriano gets X thousand for his? Think, you stupid bugger. It’s not a bit about being a better painter than me, it’s about market forces.
“The art world is about personalities; it all depends which dealer you are with. Larry Gagosian is the most famous just now: he can take someone off the street and make them famous because everyone has faith in his judgment. A good dealer can place your paintings. Mine have very often gone straight from my easel into someone’s home, because the gallery has made a phone call. There’s a parallel with being a clothes designer: it’s not so much about your work, it’s about who’s selling it, and where.”
Last month Vettriano’s partnership with his last gallery, the Portland, run by Tom Hewlett, ended mysteriously amid unconfirmed rumours that Vettriano had failed to produce pictures for a promised exhibition. It was an exceedingly fruitful relationship while it lasted, however, and Vettriano talks of it almost in terms of a marriage. .
“We had 15 great years together,” he says. “While I think that we both took a huge amount out of it in terms of putting each other on the map, we both felt it was time for a change and I’m afraid that’s all I’m going to say. I have been approached by several galleries but I’m not going to rush into any decisions because there’s no need to. I’lll think about it for the rest of this year, then make a decision early next year.” (Gagosian is not one of the dealers he is considering.) .
Vettriano gives the impression of a man with a powerful sense of how fortunate he has been in his extraordinary rags-to-riches art career. The son of a Fife miner, he left school at 16 and prepared to become a mining engineer; when he was 21 someone gave him a set of watercolours for his birthday. If there is ego there, it is a very modest ego.
“Everything has worked out fabulously well. I get all the more pleasure because I never thought it was going to happen,” he says simply.
A book will be published next February called The Artist and the Studio, a photo-documentary of him at work. About 80 per cent photos and 20 per cent paintings, it will have a foreword by Ian Rankin, the crime writer, a fellow Fifer who favours the same noir interiors. “It’s shot in my studios in Kirkcaldy, London and the South of France. There are unposed pictures of me painting,” Vettriano says. .
It will be as far as he has ever gone to reveal his private life, for some time the preoccupation of the tabloid newspapers. At 55, he says he is single, but does not, you sense, ever remain so for very long. Ask his friends and they laugh. “Jack just loves women,” they say. He flits between his three homes and confesses to feeling quite nomadic. “I will probably stay in France until Christmas. It’s so cheap and accessible to fly now. What’s lovely in the summer is that Globespan do a flight between Nice and Edinburgh for 60 euros. I’m a materialist but only with my eye on investment. I didn’t start to make money until I was in my late forties and I fully understand the value of it; and I’ve seen what new money does to people, how it makes them buy gold chains and Rolexes. .
“I don’t want to go out and be looked at. I refuse to go to lots of things I’m invited to. I don’t want to appear all over the place. In a way it lessens your art. I’m just uncomfortable with it and I’d rather stay in with a book.” .
He was appointed OBE in 2003. But he has also, he revealed, achieved that other very British high-watermark: one of his early paintings appeared recently on Antiques Roadshow. It was signed Jack Hoggan, the name he was born with. “I started painting at 21, in 1973, and it wasn’t until 1989 that I decided to see if I could make a living and changed my name.” .
During that period, he painted dozens of Hoggans, as he calls them, taking four or five at a time down to local charity fundraising exhibitions to sell for £50 each. .
The expert on Antiques Roadshow said that the painting was now worth £20,000. “I disagree with that; they were just copies. I was just teaching myself to paint,” Vettriano says. “I trained myself to paint by copying other artists. That was how I learnt, by copying. I put all these different styles in a pot and there was a certain alchemy that took place and it created my individual style. Something unique came out, and I’m very grateful for that.” .
Changing his name, he says, was a wonderful marketing ploy. He adopted his mother’s maiden name, Vettriano, which came from his Italian grandfather. “I’m a quarter Italian . . . ” he pauses, grinning, his hands framing his body from mid-thigh to waist ” . . . this bit.” .
In both his art and in his conversation, Jack Vettriano returns to sex: not sleazily, but in a rather matter-of-fact way. This is after all the raw material, the commodity, that fuels his art. He describes the sight of the men and women near his home on the Riviera, as “a visual feast”. “Wherever you look, it’s a pleasure. The women are amazing.” .
The men are probably amazing too, I venture. “I don’t look at men,” he says. Why should he? He’s the alpha male; it’s his louche fantasy. He admits that it’s usually himself he puts into his pictures. “I love the narrative of men and women. I do find it endlessly fascinating how we behave in matters of the heart, all that lying and deceit. I have never tried to deny that sex is a major interest to me and I think the difference between me and other men is that I admit it. People say to me, are you not ready to move on, but, hand on heart, all I ever wanted to do was paint people in situations I have been in. I wouldn’t deny that the work is fairly autobiographical.” .
Unsurprisingly, given the dark, erotic forces in his work, if you ask him his favourite movies he lists Blue Velvet, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover and Perfume. .
Vettriano quietly gives a lot for charity and, endearingly, retains faith in human beings, as witnessed by his recent investment in a film company, Bright Shadow Films, set up in China by Charlie Moretti, a young St Andrews University graduate. One wonders how such a mentor would have changed his life at the same age. He dismisses it. “If someone had given me a helping hand, I’d be a chef by now,” he says bluntly. “If I had gone to art school I would have had all my figurative leanings knocked out of me by lecturers who didn’t like figurative art.” .
Without that academic status, though, his rejection by art circles persists. His income of £500,000 a year from reproductions alone also causes jealousy. “Other artists thought I had sold out when I first agreed to sell posters, and that was for about £2,000 a year. Ask them now whether they’d like to be in my position and I wonder what they’d say. I am in a position to give a huge number of people a huge amount of pleasur
e, and some artists are filling their garrets with their work which no one will ever see. .
“It’s a human thing to resent people that have got there faster than you. Leonard Cohen said there’s a curious side to us that, when in the company of someone whose star is shining too brightly, we try to extinguish it. That’s what happened to me in Scotland. People have been so disparaging.” .
He is angered by the attitude of the Scottish establishment.”I’m the best known Scottish artist ever. I don’t say that because I’m the best painter, but because I’m the best known. The Royal Scottish Academy should be about recognising people that make an impact.” .
Things may yet change. The “people’s artist” is now being courted by the Nationalist government in Scotland, and this edgy, intriguing man may yet come to get the honour he craves in his own land. Like or loathe his work, it seems only just.