Jack Vettriano: Sport Portraits

Self-taught Scottish painter Jack Vettriano has a style that’s immediately recognisable. One of his paintings, The Singing Butler, sells more posters and cards than any other image.

Radio Time’s Geoff Ellis asked him about his painting of Zara Phillips, one of half-a-dozen featured in a two-part BBC1 documentary Sport Portraits.

Geoff Ellis

How did you get involved in Sport Portraits?

When I was approached, my gut reaction was to say no, because painting portraits is not something I generally do. But I said to my agent the only person I’d want to paint is Zara Phillips. I like to paint attractive women, I don’t like painting men, especially sportsmen. Painting someone like David Beckham would just make me feel inadequate.

So how did it go when you met Zara?

I went to meet her in Gloucestershire and we had some difficulties. I work from photographs almost exclusively in my own studio and working somewhere else where you don’t know the light… well, the first set of paintings were a disaster. We had to get her to come to London to photograph her in my studio. She refused to wear her riding gear, which had been the initial idea. She was right; it was too obvious. She decided she wouldn’t even wear a dress or a skirt – I do like to paint legs – but she did agree to wear very sexy high heels.

What was the plan?

My idea was that she should be standing, holding the flag behind her. It made sense if you’re going to call the painting The Olympian to have the Union Jack which represents Great Britain at the Olympics and is also her granny’s flag! In the studio, we did some shots of her standing up and then I said sit down and we’ll drape the flag over the chair. And as soon as I looked through the camera lens I knew that was what I was going to paint.

Do you normally work from photographs?

Yes. I don’t know many artists who do work from life. It’s so time consuming. I could afford to have a model here all day long but most artists couldn’t.

Has Zara seen the portrait?

Just last week we drove to Zara’s father’s place, Captain Mark Phillips, and let her see the portrait. I think she’s quite chuffed.

And you?

I’m very pleased with it. What pleases me, too, is that it still looks like a Jack Vettriano painting, even though it’s a portrait commission. I’ve put my stamp on it, you know? I often get asked to paint portraits, usually by wealthy men who want their wives painted, but I always say no. I’m not a portrait painter. It’s not what I want to do. But this is very special for two reasons. First, it’s Zara Phillips whom I admire greatly and is extremely charming. Two, it was for charity. And all the time this was going on, I had a film crew standing behind me, which upped the ante slightly.

Did that bother you?

I’ve done a wee bit of TV before. Obviously, you’d rather nobody was there. So you say to yourself, “It’s all for a good cause”. And the film crew were great. Can you put that in? I really did give them a hard time of it.

Did you lose your rag with them?

No, no, no. But when I was getting filmed, I would criticise the crew, on camera. For instance, I’d say to them: “I’ll tell you why it didn’t work the first time when we went to Gloucestershire, I had a film crew who wouldn’t shut up and who kept telling me what to say to Zara and when to say it.” I was saying this kind of tongue-in-cheek only because they were recording it. I thought, tape this, tape that. I got on great with them by then end.

Did you feel pressured during the project?

That’s the nature of commissions – they’re nervy because you have someone else to please. I generally paint for myself and you have the choice. You either buy it or you don’t and frankly I don’t much care so long as someone buys it. I’ve only ever done one commission before, for Terence Conran, for his Bluebird Club. You have to please the sitter.

The plan is to sell the portrait at auction in aid of Sport Relief. What’s the record price for your work?

Three-quarters of a million. The TV production company has insured the painting for a £100,000. It would be great if it made that.

Are you a sports fan?

Yes, but only from my armchair. I’m very fortunate because I’ve met Sir Alex Ferguson; he has a few of my paintings. He’s not nearly as grumpy as people think – he’s quite good fun. I’ve always been a Manchester United fan and I think that goes back to the time when United had a few Scottish players in the squad – along with Liverpool. Liverpool and Man U are the teams I want to do well. Although I live in London now, I never will be a fan of Arsenal or Chelsea.