His Dark Materials
Hyped as Britain’s most popular artist – one of his works recently sold for a record-breaking £750,000 – Jack Vettriano is adored by millions who couldn’t care less that art critics deride him. But there’s a side to the painter his fans are unaware of.
Until three months ago, it was quite easy to ignore Jack Vettriano, provided you kept your eyes averted from The Singing Butler greetings cards in WH Smith. But in April, at auction in Edinburgh, the original painting sold for £744,800, making it the most expensive Scottish painting ever to come under the hammer. So even if one doesn’t take Vettriano seriously as a painter, one has to take him seriously as an investment.
He painted The Singing Butler in 1992 and submitted it for the Royal Academy summer show, where it was rejected. His dealer then offered it to the Scottish Arts Council which didn’t even reply, so he sold it privately for £3,500. Four years later, it changed hands for £5,000 – and now has changed hands again for three quarters of a million.
There were another 12 Vettrianos in the Edinburgh auction which all went for six figures. A tiny study for The Administration of Justice (one of his kinkier efforts) fetched £175,000. Vettriano didn’t attend the auction and I asked his dealer, Tom Hewlett, why – wasn’t he interested? ‘Oh, he’s massively interested, but he doesn’t want to go and seem to be gloating. That’s just not his style. I was with him that evening in Scotland and he was still in a state of shock.’
Anyway, in the wake of The Singing Butler sale, there will be even more attention on Vettriano’s new show, ‘Affairs of the Heart’, which opens at London’s Portland Gallery on 19 June. It is his first show for four years; he was meant to have one in New York but it was cancelled in the wake of 9/11. But even without having a show, his public profile has been steadily increasing. He always complains of lack of recognition but he has been receiving accolades by the bucketload – a respectful South Bank Show, a ditto Desert Island Discs, a couple of honorary degrees and the OBE last year.
As a consequence, his prices have shot up. At his last show, they were between £30-50,000, now they are £35-£130,000. But don’t bother rushing to the Portland Gallery with your chequebook – all but three of the paintings have already been sold, to collectors who have been on the waiting list for years. Sir Alex Ferguson is the latest addition to the Vettriano owners’ club; others include Terence Conran, Raymond Blanc (who has a ‘Vettriano suite’ at the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons), Robbie Coltrane, Tim Rice, Alan Coren and Jack Nicholson. (Tom Hewlett recently asked Nicholson if he’d be interested in selling, but the answer was no.)
But there is still absolutely no interest in his work from the public galleries – there is only one Vettriano in a museum and that is in Kirkcaldy, Fife, his home town.
The usual factoid about Jack Vettriano is that he is ‘the most popular artist in Britain’ – more popular than Monet, than Renoir, than Van Gogh. The tenuous basis for this claim is that a few of his paintings – most obviously The Singing Butler – have been widely reproduced on prints, posters, greetings cards, on coffee mugs, on umbrel las, on Marks & Spencer biscuit tins, and have sold in their millions – 12 million legally, but probably 10 times that in pirated versions. Vettriano’s income from these reproductions runs to more than half a million a year.
When people think of a Vettriano, they probably think of one of these reproductions, which will be set on a beach, featuring people in elegant Forties or Fifties clothes, possibly with a maid or butler in tow. They are a very feminine vision of ‘the high life’. However, such paintings are only a tiny part of his oeuvre and, moreover, a part he no longer produces. His last beach scene was painted in 1996. What he mainly paints are low-life night scenes, which carry a heavy charge of kinky eroticism. They are not pornographic exactly – the women rarely undress beyond their underwear and the men are fully clothed – but they are dark, claustrophobic, sleazy.
So what Vettriano is famous for is not what he actually does, and I imagine that many of the nice M&S customers who cherish their Singing Butler biscuit tins would be quite shocked to see, say, Scarlet Ribbons, Lovely Ribbons in which a girl in black stockings and suspenders is bound to an artist’s easel, or Fetish, in which a man thoughtfully contemplates a woman’s stiletto.
In short, there are two Jack Vettrianos; nice JV who goes in for butlers and ballgowns and nasty JV who goes in for sex games. And, evidently, nasty JV is winning because the butlers have not appeared for eight years. But what is common to both types of painting is the very strong narrative content, which invites the viewer to make up the backstory. Why is this couple in evening dress dancing on a windy beach, with a butler and maid in attendance? Come to that, why is the painting called The Singing Butler , when there is nothing to suggest that the butler is singing? (In fact, it would be very difficult for him to sing because he doesn’t appear to have a head, just a bowler hat attached to his collar.)
And the couples in his airless hotel rooms – are they adulterers meeting for a quickie or hookers with clients? Anyway, the fact that there is all this exciting ‘story’ in the images makes it easy to ignore the deadly flatness of the technique.
This is the answer to the question: why don’t art critics take Vettriano seriously? Because there is nothing of any interest in the way he paints – Vettriano is to painting what Jeffrey Archer is to prose. Nevertheless, he is very interesting both as a person and as a phenomenon; a self-taught painter who, by depicting his own fantasies, has somehow managed to reach an audience who don’t normally take any interest in art. He is also – I was pleased to discover – a very modest, articulate, friendly interviewee.
He lives in a most unlikely setting for an artist, a smart block of mansion flats, with porter, just behind Harrods. The largeish front room is both sitting room and studio, the studio consisting of an easel and a messy table of paints, the sitting room consisting of a couple of sofas, a glass-fronted cabinet of high-heeled shoes (his fetish) and countless overflowing ashtrays.
The whole place is very much a bachelor pad – the kitchen features a gaping rubbish sack full of takeaway cartons. But he is a courteous host, offering me tea or an Italian frizzante mineral water he is keen on. Unusually for an artist – dare I say for a Scot? – he doesn’t drink.
I asked if he was nervous about his new exhibition and he said: ‘Yes, I think more than ever, because of The Singing Butler, people will be sharpening their pencils. But I wouldn’t want to be anything else. The day you’re sitting back saying, “Oh well, another exhibition”, I think you should pack it in.’
The exhibition contains some departures for him – studies of individual women, fully clothed, which he describes as: ‘Not portraits exactly, but just a kind of adoration of a woman and the clothes that she wears.’ Women’s clothes, especially shoes, are important to him. He used to trawl the charity shops in Edinburgh to find the ones he fancied; now he relies on his regular models to do it for him.
He uses the same models over and over because: ‘I like things to be kept tight. I don’t want people going round saying, “I’m Jack Vettriano’s model.” That’s why I don’t use catwalk models or models who think they’re models.’
In the past, when he needed a man in the picture he always used himself because: ‘I’m discreet and cheap and I wanted to limit the number of people who actually saw what goes on in my studio.’ But lately, he says, he’s started using a man model because: ‘I’m now beginning to look a wee bit like a kind of lecherous older man and there’s only so much surgery I can give myself!’
He gets his ideas mainly from song lyrics, occasi
onally from newspaper stories. When two or three ideas have gelled, he gets a model round, takes photos and then paints from the photos. But why has he never painted from life? ‘I tried to and I just couldn’t do it. I was too nervous. This is probably to do with being self-taught. When you’re teaching yourself, the thought of somebody sitting in front of you half-naked just petrifies you.’
But now, surely, he could do it? ‘I just couldn’t have anybody around and it’s partially to do with solitude and partially to do with having to make banal conversation.’
He felt very envious the other day when he saw a photograph of Lucian Freud in his studio with Brigadier Parker Bowles posing for him and he thought: ‘God, I’d love to be able to do that.’ But then he thought: ‘I would love to have the photograph, but I wouldn’t like the process.’
He still has hang-ups about being self-taught. He didn’t acquire his first paints till he was 22 and then started copying paintings from library books, everyone from Dali to Caravaggio to Monet. He applied to art school in his thirties but was rejected. When he became successful, he thought about inventing a story that he went to Goldsmith’s but realised he couldn’t get away with it. His friend and mentor, Scottish art critic W Gordon Smith, assured him that being self-taught was fine but he still has this hankering to be at least acknowledged by the art establishment.
Instead, he has to put up with patronising headlines such as ‘The miner who outsells Monet’ from the Mail on Sunday. He was never a miner, he never hewed coal, though he did serve an apprenticeship down the pits for four years. He was born Jack Hoggan in l951 and grew up in a mining village near Kirkcaldy, which he describes as ‘linoleum on the floor, baked beans on the plate and flying ducks on the walls’. His parents, he says, ‘didn’t give me a strict upbringing, they didn’t give me a good education, but they gave me a lot of love’ and he was delighted last year to take them to Buckingham Palace to collect his OBE. They often still watch the video, he says.
His ‘wee hobby’ of painting developed during his twenties and thirties to the detriment of his marriage which foundered after five years. By this time, he had moved into white-collar jobs as a personnel manager, and he spent a year in Bahrain where he had his first exhibition. But he was still essentially copying other artists. ‘I could see that I had something. I had a certain skill in those hands. What I didn’t have was ideas which were mine. But I just had to dig deeper and deeper.’
The breakthrough came in 1988, when he had two paintings accepted by the Royal Scottish Academy summer show. They sold on the first day and he had letters from three galleries offering to represent him. He never had to hawk his work round, for which he is eternally grateful, and he never had any bad experiences with dealers. He has a particularly good relationship with Tom Hewlett of the Portland Gallery, who is his friend as well as dealer.
As soon as he signed with a gallery, he gave up work, moved to Edinburgh and changed his name to Vettriano – his mother’s maiden name – to distance himself from all the copies he had painted as Jack Hoggan. He painted day and night and was immediately successful. But he deeply resents the idea that he set out to be a commercial painter, that he knew what the public wanted and gave it to them. On the contrary, he says: ‘Nobody was more astonished at the response than me.’ He dithered long and hard before agreeing to let his work be reproduced – it didn’t happen till 1995 – and says he was guided by thinking: ‘What would Monet or Van Gogh have done?’
In 1998, he moved down to London because he had become too visible in Edinburgh and attracted too many hangers-on. He was also beginning to become rather paranoid about tabloid attention. This came to a head in 1999 when the papers ran a story that he had been accused of stalking a woman in Edinburgh back in 1991. The police investigated the matter and brought no charges, but the press story made him so depressed, he stopped painting for months.
Even now he goes white at the memory: ‘I just don’t want to be reading about things that make me feel ashamed of myself. I think that’s the Scottish upbringing. My mother was quite ill over all that stalking stuff and I hated that she had to go through that. And I hated it more because it was nonsense.’
At one point, he said, he felt he didn’t dare go out for fear of what the press might report. But surely, I said, a bit of louche behaviour wouldn’t really damage his image? Nobody would faint with horror if Jack Vettriano was seen emerging from a lapdancing club. ‘No, but stalking is not louche behaviour!’ he thunders. ‘To put somebody into a state of a alarm is not louche behaviour! Louche behaviour might be me being photographed going into a hotel room with a couple of girls – that’s fine. But stalking is not. Stalking is a crime, and there’s a big difference between that and having a wee bit of sex fun.’
Point taken, but even so, I find his attitude to sex (or perhaps lust is the better word) deeply peculiar. He sees it everywhere; he thinks the whole world goes to sex shops and tries out bondage games; he says all men are shoe fetishists. Tom Hewlett told me: ‘Jack thinks that everybody else thinks about sex as much as he does. That’s what drives him and therefore he thinks it drives everybody. He once said, “Show me a man who’s never fancied a prostitute and I’ll show you a liar”, and I was thinking, “Oh really? I obviously lead a very dull life!”‘
But then Vettriano also seems to believe that casual sex is an incredibly addictive dangerous drug, like heroin; that if you once dabble in it, you will be dragged down and ruined. That is why his erotic paintings are so highly charged. These are not just couples meeting for a quick shag; these are couples hovering on the brink of perdition. He describes them as: ‘People who are basically unhappy because they’re driven by this need continually to have new partners, continually to reinvent themselves. And I just think there are a lot of people like that around, whether they admit it or not. Let’s be frank, the sex industry is massive and it’s full of middle-aged men who are, on the surface, very happy but have these raging desires. In other words, all of us.’
Does he still go to bars or brothels to get inspiration? ‘I’ve done it all. I’ve seen what I needed to see. It’s all there in my mind’s eye, and I haven’t done anything like that for some years. I think the problem with the sex industry is that the people who operate it are difficult people, and it’s a world of exploitation, and you don’t want to get too close to it. There are fetish clubs around which I just wouldn’t touch.
‘There’s been a lot said about what I’ve got up to and I said at the time I did it for research purposes and that was true. I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy it because I don’t think there’s a man alive who, if you said to him, “Look, through that room there are six girls all sitting in their underwear and you can have your pick” would say, “No”. So I’ve seen how it operates and it is quite fascinating, but it’s a fascination that is like drugs. Maybe just dip your toe into the water to see what it’s like but then walk away. For Christ’s sake, walk away. Because it’s not a recipe for happiness, for inner peace.’
Coo-er. So casual sex is dangerous, but then he says he can’t do lasting relationships either – he sees them as inimical to art. ‘I have a fear of domestic bliss, because I have a fear that it will take an edge off the work.’
However, he concedes, he is now in a relationship and trying to lead a more normal life. When he first became a professional painter, he could and would paint non-stop, but now, he says, he is deliberately slowing down.
‘I’ve tried very hard to lessen my work regime because my body can’t take it any more. I don’t live a particularly healthy lifestyle and I am in a relationship and I think you’ve got to try and balance things a bi
t better. Instead of saying, “To hell with it, I’m going to paint tonight”, you say, “No, let’s go and have dinner.” I’m trying more to, if you like, enjoy the things that success gives you.’
He has plenty to enjoy – a new house he has just bought in Oxford, a huge apartment in Kirkcaldy near his parents, the flat in Knightsbridge, his precious old Mercedes. But actually what he most enjoys is giving money away, either to his family or to charities. His dealer told me that he recently gave £75,000 to St Andrews University to subsidise underprivileged students. ‘That’s what I like about having money, that you have the power to enrich people’s lives. But I think, like all creative people, I can give material things much more than I can give of me and sometimes, if I’m honest I think that’s a kind of compensation.’
I asked him if he was as shocked by that £750,000 for The Singing Butler as I was, and he readily agreed: ‘Yes, it shocks me immensely. And I have to say this to you, Lynn, I will never ever claim that The Singing Butler is the best painting ever painted in Scotland, that is just nonsense.’
Well, good. The Jack Vettriano I met seemed entirely modest, sane and sensible, but I think I happened to catch him on a relatively sunny day. In other interviews, he has grumbled darkly about how there is a conspiracy to keep him out of the public galleries, and how he is the victim of an anti-heterosexual prejudice among homosexual art curators. I think the fact is that he swings wildly between different moods.
As Tom Hewlett told me: ‘Jack’s highs are higher, his lows lower than most people’s.’ These moods are reflected in his paintings – high life and low life, sunny beach scenes and claustrophobic night scenes. His last show was entirely dark; his new show has glimmerings of cheerfulness.
Will he ever paint another beach scene? ‘Well, the people who produce the prints keep pestering me, but because they want them, that’s why I won’t do them. But I do have an idea for one and I will do it eventually, but I’ve no desire to run down to Brighton just now and stare at the beach.’