Enigma of art's missing man

‘You think people in Banff don’t have a sex drive?" Jack Vettriano asks incredulously. "People are the same the world over, you know. We’re all driven by the old ..." and he makes his point with a movement of his hand towards his crotch.

This is where conversation inevitably leads when you turn to the darker aspects of this artist’s work, those sinister couplings of loveless men and heartless women which form the subject of so many of his paintings.

It is this selfsame material that his fans have been lapping up in Banff all week. On the opening day of a charity exhibition for Scottish International Relief, 900 people visited Duff House, more than twice its record.

To sweeten the pleasure for the artist, the building is an outpost of the National Gallery of Scotland, an institution which has resolutely refused to purchase his work, despite his seemingly indisputable reputation as Britain’s favourite painter. He earns more than 500,000 a year from royalties from prints and postcards alone.

Popular recognition at last is beginning to fertilise "official" opinion. Vettriano was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list ("I was delighted for my parents’ sake"); St Andrews University last week awarded him an honorary doctorate. Suggests one sympathetic gallery owner: "The drawbridge is beginning to come down."

The painter has homes in London and Kirkcaldy and here, outside the royal burgh’s museum, his popularity is apparent enough from the cheerful greetings of the gallery attendants. A glance at a visitor’s book for a solo show here reveals many racy comments from his women admirers. He admits a sense of wonder at the reach of his work.

"The most surprising people…," he begins. "You speak to an older woman and she’ll say: ‘That’s so sexy.’ I was introduced to a woman last night, she has a hotel in Lundin Links, a respected businesswoman. She has prints of mine in a function suite. I said: ‘Oh, you’ll have the beach paintings.’ She said: ‘Yes, but I like the dark ones better’. "

Vettriano’s fan base is broad. When, in 1993, he and his agent Tom Hewlett agreed their deal, the two men celebrated at Raymond Blanc’s restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. Blanc was so impressed with the artist’s work he named a suite after Vettriano and hung it with his work. A decade later the Daily Telegraph reported a charity auction at Le Manoir attended by a cross-section of "comfortably-off Middle Britain", regular joes who were prepared to part with 1,295 for a silk-screen print, or maybe 40,000 for an original painting.

Vettriano says he is touched by this kind of support, and "not a little humbled". It is proof of his worth in the face of the contempt of art critics in Scotland, a rejection which he views as another side of the snobbery of the establishment. "People can engage with my work," he says. "They engage because what I paint is a world they remember, or they want to be in, or they’ve been in. They might even be glad they got out of it. But they can recognise themselves."

Vettriano has credentials for this role as Everyman. His father Bill Hoggan was a Fife miner, though Jack later took Cath, his mother’s, maiden name. After flunking school in Methil his career began below ground at the Michael Colliery - the noise of the work has made him deaf in his left ear - and he went on to make only the most limited progress through a series of humdrum white-collar jobs.

All the while, a parallel life was developing. In his twenties he took to painting when he was gifted a set of watercolours by a girlfriend, and taught himself by copying the work of the masters. Following his marriage in 1981 there was pressure to work - he was employed briefly by his wife’s father - but he continued to pursue his obsession with art.

When in 1988 he submitted two paintings to the Royal Scottish Academy’s summer show, they sold on the first day of the exhibition. It was a watershed. Within months, his marriage collapsed and he had moved across the Forth to live and work as a painter.

"I arrived in Edinburgh at 39, to try to earn a living from painting," he recalls. "Very quickly I was earning more than I had when I was working. There was a huge sense of liberation."

He pauses, weighing up his thoughts, and then goes on in his soft voice: "This liberation is quite a big thing when it happens. Most people are tethered in some way - they’re in the mortgage trap, they work for a big company or for their father-in-law and in some way they’re trapped … Suddenly when you are free from all that, you’re running your own affairs, and you’re not answerable to a soul, it does encourage you to think, ‘Well I’ll just put my toe in this water a bit - to see what it’s like’."

It is easy to imagine he witnessed the scenes he so often depicts - prostitutes and brothels, call-outs and escorts - that his own experiences informed the scenes he later painted.

"Yeah, yeah," he concedes. "But that’s all I’ll say. I have done things because I wanted to see what that was like. It’s not fulfilling, let’s put it that way. It’s lonely, because you are always moving on. It’s not satisfying, because if your relationship is of a sexual nature, the people only get a wee part of you. And I’m quite private. You’re having relationships with people that don’t know anything about you, you’re not telling them anything."

But if he concedes his work reflects an inherent loneliness, he insists it’s good he can paint from experience.

"Don’t pretend," he advises, "don’t pretend you don’t know the world that you paint. Don’t pretend you’re in a bungalow with a wife and two kids and a couple of dogs, when it’s not like that. People prefer that. I’m not going to stand up there and say one thing when I mean another.

"People can sense that about my work. As much as I’m blamed for it, I try not to make it dramatic, I try not to make people think, ‘That looks a fabulous life’. If you look at the faces, they are not happy. I have gone through long periods of my life when I haven’t been happy at all, but for some reasons that kind of emotional instability does trigger off ideas."

Sex, primal instincts, pervades his work, the most compelling and destructive theme. He goes on: "Look at how the Tory government collapsed around scandal or how [former US president] Bill Clinton behaved - when you want something from a woman, by Christ you want it badly. It’s like the blood rushes from your brain somewhere else; it renders you senseless. And you just go ahead and make mistakes.

"These paintings are about people who are driven like that, about people who are out of control, not in a violent way, but just driven. They keep on going back to the bars: they just love that kind of world, they’re lonely, unhappy, dysfunctional - that’s what drives them. There’s a bit of that in nearly every human being. People like the paintings, because they can look at them and they can see little parts of themselves."

By now there’s an edge in his voice. "I’m not, for Christ’s sake, saying I’m a specialist in this area at all. These are just my thoughts and what I’m trying to put on canvas, the world as I see it."

Not that darkness runs the length of his work. His most famous painting, owned by a Kirkcaldy businessman, is The Singing Butler, and is one of many that are set on a beach. He could be even richer if he concentrated on canvases of this type. "It’s almost like the more people want you to do something, the less likely you are to do it. I’m pleased that I paint from the heart."

For a time we have been sitting by Kirkcaldy’s war memorial, sheltered under the entrance of the museum. By Vettriano’s side is a book of his paintings and now he begins to flick through them.

He stops at an image which shows a fully clothed man leaning against a chair, regarding two beautiful young women, dressed only in their underwear.

He describes it. "The Master of Ceremonies is just about a man who hires two girls in. He’s hiring them in and he is controlling them. And you know he will spend the night getting them to do the things that move him. There is no love there whatsoever, nothing at all to do with love."

He turns to another image, a couple locked in an embrace, the man’s hand pushing against his partner’s pudenda. "Game On, that’s always been very popular. To me that is actually a couple who are in love. But they are just doing the Saturday night thing - they have the Champagne, they dress up, they play act. It’s great fun."

Then he says: "I like this kind of painting, where I introduce another person into it," and he turns to Between Darkness and Dawn. "The cheap electric fire, the two people undressing and they don’t touch each other. And there’s another man watching. Who is he? As [the writer] AL Kennedy has said, what you get from my paintings is what you take to them. Which is why some people are truly appalled, and some people love them."

In other words, critics often just don’t like his subject matter, he says. There’s a kind of denial. "Some people will deny the world I paint exists or that they have ever had these feelings. I suspect some people who aren’t happy are not happy because I am painting their lives."

These days Vettriano has a partner and admits to enjoying the emotional exchange which comes with companionship. Perhaps significantly, he is not painting as much. There’s an aura of contentment around him - why should he worry about the criticism he feels from that arts establishment?

The answer is couched again almost in sexual terms. "Ask any woman who looks lovely …" he begins. "If ten people say she looks gorgeous and then one person turns round and says: ‘O I don’t like that’, it’s that remark which haunts her."

His tortuous and frightening journey may be behind him, but Vettriano still wants to be loved.

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