Lothario with a Paintbrush
A self-taught painter from the Scottish coalfields, Jack Vettriano is one of Britain’s highest-earning contemporary artists. But his work – figurative and erotic – is ignored by the press, which has shown more interest in his colourful private life.
A woman in a red dress dances with a tuxedo-clad man on a beach, in the rain, as a butler and a maid hold aloft two umbrellas. The Singing Butler, by the self-taught Scottish painter Jack Vettriano, is the bestselling fine art print in the UK, and the licensing agreement for this one image earns the artist £250,000 in royalties each year. Vettriano’s clients include Jack Nicholson, Sir Terence Conran and Robbie Coltrane, and his paintings typically sell for around £40,000. But as Conran, who commissioned Vettriano to paint the series of oils which hangs in his Bluebird restaurant complex in London, acknowledges, “Jack is not of the fine art world and there is a degree of misunderstanding about his work. I would never suggest Jack is a great artist in the manner of Francis Bacon, I don’t think he would claim to be. But he is an extremely competent artist in the Edward Hopper mould. He is extremely good with light and, in the paintings he did for Bluebird, he really understands the relationships between people.”
Tom Hewlett, Vettriano’s dealer for the past nine years, thinks the art establishment has punished him for the popularity of his style – described by the artist himself as a cross between 1930s railway posters and the covers of pulp fiction novels. “If you have a painting that is simple to understand, that the ordinary man can understand, it rather puts the critic out of a job. It’s very telling that Jack is so widely known and loved by the public yet many critics have never heard of him and he is rarely reviewed,” Hewlett says.
Duncan Macmillan, a Scottish art critic and author of Scottish Art 1460-2000, the definitive guide to the nation’s art, takes the opposite view: “He is the perfect example of the way in which there is a muddle about popularism: people seem to think that if you say something is bad you are being elitist when it is merely a statement of fact… I wish him no personal ill will and he is welcome to all the money he has made, but the reason I find Vettriano so frightening is that his work shows the extent to which even art has been compromised by the argument that the market is the most powerful thing, when it is the people controlling the market who are powerful. We have surrendered our right to judge, handed it over to other people, and that is a very dangerous thing to do.”
It is comments like these, and others more cutting, which precipitated Vettriano’s move from Scotland to London four years ago. Although he affects to brush them aside, it appears that the attitudes of critics, which oscillate between disdain and indifference, offend him more than he will admit. None of the big Scottish or English galleries has bought Vettriano’s work, though he did give a painting to Kirkcaldy museum near his childhood home. A little revelling in the outsider tag of the “got-at” artist is probably the only thing that gets him through.
It wasn’t so much the words of the critics, however, as the reaction of the public which pushed Vettriano southwards. “I think with the critics and Duncan Macmillan disliking my work I was getting the sympathy vote and that was not enjoyable because you start to feel like some sort of wimp,” he says. So, in 1998, he sold his home in Edinburgh and headed for Chelsea.
It was the latest stage in what has been a very long journey for the man born Jack Hoggan in a Fife mining community on November 17 1951. He was the second son of Charlotte and William Hoggan, who lived in a small miner’s cottage in Methilhill. Slagheaps and pit winding gear dotted the countryside around; the North sea brought winds cold enough to freeze the family’s bones. The Hoggans – there were four children in all – were not the poorest family in town, but money was a constant source of worry.
“My father was a miner and we lived in a miners’ row, we were quite poor. My father used to say whenever one of us was born they put another cup of water in the soup.” says Vettriano. “It is bloody hard when you put one foot out of the bed and it’s freezing cold linoleum, there’s no central heating and your mum hasn’t put the fire on yet. But it was really a very happy childhood – it was a working-class family trying to better themselves.”
His maternal grandfather, Peter Vettriano, an Italian immigrant, was one of the greatest influences on his early life -some 30 years later Jack took his surname. Art was not a familiar concept in the family home, but Jack liked to draw and his grandfather would bring home little pads of betting slips and tiny wooden pencils from the local bookmakers. For hours, Jack would sit doodling on the pads. “I used to love to draw on them – goalmouth incidents, birds’ nests. I had a thing about birds’ nests,” he says.
The confines of Methilhill seem limiting now, but back then young Jack aspired to little more. By his own admission, he was never much interested in school. He was always in the bottom stream, the one designed for those destined to be labourers, and he cared little. “I was a particularly bad student. I think one of the problems of growing up in that kind of working-class environment is that very early on you are gifted with this notion that there are snobs in this life and then there is you. And you don’t want to be like the snobs.”
His ambition stretched to following in the footsteps of his father, who left school at 14 to go down the pit. While at school, Jack took a series of part-time jobs for pocket money. The most lucrative of these was as a bingo caller in the seaside town of Leven. He memorised the numbers on one of the bingo machines and, two to three times a day, one of his friends would sit at the machine while he called them out, regardless of the numbers on the balls he was picking. The holiday makers were fleeced, but it kept him and his friends in cigarettes.
As his schooldays slipped by, so, too, did his opportunities. Not that he cared. “You develop these heroes in your mind,” he says. “My heroes would hang around on street corners smoking, they were hard men. I just wanted to leave school, buy clothes, maybe get a car, go dancing, pick up women, have that feeling where you’re king for a couple of summers. But then you are 40 and fat and you wake up one morning and realise your life is over.”
At 15, Jack left school bursting with braggadocio, but without even an apprenticeship to go to. He got a job in the Michael colliery filling sandbags. Then, within a year, he managed to secure an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer. “I was down the pit when I was between 16 and 18, but it would be wrong to pretend that I got coal out of the pit,” he says. “For the first year, I carried the journeyman’s toolbag and learned to say something interesting when all I was thinking about was women. The rest of the time it was smoking and skiving.”
Away from the pit, he worked on his real passion: women. His corner of Fife was hardly a centre of sophistication, even by the more lax standard of the 60s, but it did at least boast two ballrooms: the Raith and the Burma. The women who populated them were all high heels, red lipstick and big hair – the sort of women he now eroticises in his paintings. The reality of the ballrooms, however, was a far cry from the glossy and nostalgic image he so often paints.
“We would stand in rows and pick out who we wanted – she was your first, she was your reserve and she was your desperation. Once they danced with you, you would ask them to go for a burger and Coke, then you would try to snog them with the onions dripping out of your burger. It was every man for himself when it came to getting the women home. Most of the time you didn’t have a car so you would have to go to the bus stop and there would be rows of you all lined up in the freezing cold trying to get a snog.”
As his apprenticeship n
eared an end, he decided that on his final day he would hand in his notice. In a local paper, he spotted an advert looking for young men to “train as an interviewer”. “Here was me thinking I was going to be the next Parkinson, but all I did was try to sell magazine subscriptions, for obscure titles, round the doors in Darlington.” He lasted a day before jumping on the first train to King’s Cross. In London he fared little better. A job as a trainee chef, and a bedsit landlady who would shout “where’s my teeth?” for much of the day, didn’t work out. Within a few months he was back home in Fife.
After a short stint as a barman, he managed to get a job as a personnel officer. Life, though, was the same round of boring work and bad dances. Strangely for a man of that era, however, alcohol was never a feature. As a youth Vettriano once found himself drunk on whisky and asleep in a hedge. He has rarely touched alcohol since. At 20, he met a primary school teacher, Ruth McIntosh, who became his girlfriend and changed his life. “I had never met a professional woman before, it was all girlfriends who were just factory girls,” he says. “I remember her saying to me, ‘If you don’t do something with your life you’re going to live and die in this town’.”
The first thing he did was to enrol in night classes at Kirkcaldy technical college which eventually led to a job with the local council. But, when he was 21, Ruth set him on an altogether more fateful path. “For my 21st birthday she gave me a box of watercolours and when I tried it I really enjoyed it. I would paint a couple of nights a week. I had so many fights with my parents because of the smell of turps coming out of the room and they would go mental when I made up still lives and left them until the fruit went all rotten. I had no idea what I wanted to paint and no confidence.”
Having little exposure to the world of art, Vettriano embarked on the only training he could contrive: he copied. Hardly an artist, from the Italian masters to the Impressionists and Dali, escaped his plagiaristic attentions. Despite the unorthodox methods, he became obsessed by art.
In 1979, he applied for a job as a management consultant in Bahrain. The pay on offer, tax-free, was around four times his Scottish salary. More than that, he knew there would be little in the Gulf state to distract him from his painting. It was a productive time and, in Bahrain, he held his first exhibition. Every painting was a copy or a contrived image completed to order for one of the expats.
When he returned to Edinburgh a year later he met his future wife, Gail Cormack. For a time, they both worked for her father’s newspaper distribution business. When he married, Vettriano gained a stepdaughter, Victoria, whom he adopted. He had enough money in his pocket to buy a flat outright in Kirkcaldy. After taking a couple of uninspiring but decently paid jobs he quit work and began painting full time.
By 1988, he had begun to develop his style, loosely inspired by film noir. That year he submitted two paintings – one of Gail, Model in a White Slip , and another of a couple in a dancehall, Saturday Night – to the Royal Scottish Academy’s summer exhibition. After having painted so many copies under the name Hoggan, he decided to switch to his mother’s maiden name, Vettriano. It helped that the name fitted so well with the artistic style he was developing – and the dark and dangerous image he had begun cultivating for himself. He is tall, stocky and always unshaven. His curly hair is swept back; he dresses in monochrome; he is undoubtedly vain. “I’ve got to admit, it’s a great name,” he says. Both paintings sold within hours of going on display and his career took off. But within months his marriage was over. “I wanted every spare moment to be painting and I was selfish,” he says. “My wife and I decided to split and I moved my paints into the living room and I would paint until three in the morning.”
The divorce was amicable enough and, until recently, he and his wife remained on speaking terms. His relationship with his adopted daughter, however, quickly fizzled out. “Victoria by this time was a teenager and I don’t think she needed me any more than I needed her, in the sense of fatherly need. She wasn’t mine and I was only partially responsible for her, I didn’t feel any amazing sense of fatherhood,” he says.
During the following years, Vettriano began exhibiting and selling more and more. In 1991, W Gordon Smith, then art critic for Scotland on Sunday, began championing his work. In 1992, Vettriano mounted his first London exhibition, God’s Children. The paintings sold but he got little media exposure. Then, in early 1993, he began his partnership with Tom Hewlett at London’s Portland Gallery.
“What first attracted me to Jack’s work was the same as what attracts everybody to it: there’s a narrative which invites you to continue the story,” Hewlett says. “They’re like a moment caught in time and you continue the story in your head.” Perhaps in part because of his origins, perhaps in part because he is disliked by the critics and sales are his only external measure of success, Vettriano has always adopted a businesslike attitude towards his art. When Hewlett said his work was being undervalued, and that the right price for a particular painting he had seen might be nearer £10,000 than the £6,000-£7,000 he was used to, Vettriano agreed to be represented by him. “I remember seeing a television programme about artists and somebody said when you see them together at exhibitions they talk about perspective and the like,” he says. “But when they get into the taxi all they talk about is who is making most.”
As his career soared, Vettriano’s private life swung between a series of one-night stands and unfortunate encounters with married women. He is intensely private – friends say they are never aware whether he has a current girlfriend – but he admits he has not had a long-term relationship since he split from his wife. In his self-portraits, he tends to portray himself as a somewhat urbane Lothario: a black suit, white shirt, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and more than a hint that something darker lies behind. It is an image he obviously rather enjoys.
“Since I came to the public eye, I have never been linked with anyone romantically, therefore I have always been someone who relied on outside pleasure, pleasure outside normal relationships. I couldn’t deny that I have enjoyed that image, but it can all go horribly wrong,” he says.
His work is largely concerned with sex which, he thinks, is crucial to our understanding of human behaviour and history. “I just happen to think it is pretty much fundamental, everybody everywhere is driven by the urge to do it. It is a powerful force and only the strong and the happy are able to resist it.”
The sex Vettriano portrays, however, is faintly seedy and never loving. His women are invariably clad in stilettos – he keeps a collection in his studio – and stockings. Many are semi-naked while his men, in contrast, are usually clothed.
This work has an autobiographical aspect, as Vettriano explains. “I think being the kind of creative person I am, the downside is that you are pushed to try out things. I am not going to paint prostitutes unless I have some experience of them. I am not going to paint lap dancers unless I have experience of them.”
There is, of course, a flip side to the image and Vettriano’s penchant for casual sex and seduction. Just before Christmas 1999, a Scottish tabloid alleged that the previous year Vettriano had stalked a woman in Edinburgh. “I was absolutely astonished by it because anybody who knows me even slightly will know that it is very difficult to get me to leave my studio let alone stalk someone. Anyone who knows me knows that I would never put anyone in a state of alarm. It doesn’t matter how much you know it is rubbish, it still hurts, particularly for my family who suddenly find themselves reading a newspaper with all this rot in it.”
When the story was published, Vettriano’s mot
her was horrified. She took to her bed for two weeks, ashamed to face the neighbours. Vettriano himself sank into a depression which was to last six months. When the Spectator repeated the allegations his lawyers forced the magazine to withdraw them. Vettriano admits that he knew the woman involved. While painting at his Edinburgh studio, he noticed her from the window. One day he left a note on her car windscreen, inviting her to an exhibition. They exchanged a few phone calls. She said she was going back to an old boyfriend. And that, says Vettriano, was the end of that. When the allegations were made the police questioned him, but they took no action. “If any of the allegations were true I would have been prosecuted,” he says.
Whatever its veracity, the story plunged Vettriano into one of the darkest periods of his life. He constantly shuttled between London and Fife. He painted only a very little; what he did was not worth the oils, he says. The tabloid story also took the edge from what should have been a great time: his first exhibition in New York had been a runaway success. Buyers from Britain jumped on planes and literally queued round the block to get first option on his work. “We had to operate a ticket system where the first person in the queue got the first chance to buy and the second person couldn’t buy until the first person had bought. It was insane,” he says. In America, though, he was again ignored by the critics.
This does not, however, affect his output. Vettriano paints with the fervour of a work-crazed insomniac. In the dead of night, when the rest of London is asleep or dragging itself to one last club or party, the glare of artificial daylight powers from his Chelsea studio window. He paints furiously, always completing the work in one sitting. He never allows the paint to dry before he has finished and he never goes back to a work. At his most prolific, he can produce three paintings a week.
“What I try to do is develop craft,” he says. “Lucian Freud is someone I admire greatly because of his craft. I am not a great fan of Brit Art because it lacks craft. It’s astonishing, though, how an unmade bed or a shark in formaldehyde does take on a completely different effect when it is placed in the middle of a room.”
And for Vettriano, there is always the refuge of sex. Even that, though, is as bittersweet as his success. “When you have been responsible for someone else’s unhappiness, when you wake up and go to a strange bathroom, it is not a pleasant feeling. But the next night it’s gone. It is not a lasting feeling. You just keep on doing what you want to do.” In his life, then, as in his art.