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'I paint what moves me – sexiness' - Jack Vettriano interview

Jack Vettriano is the nation's most successful living artist – his prints outselling the likes of Klimt and Monet. In a frank interview the 'people's painter' talks about his obsession with women of a certain type, why he felt he had to leave Scotland and his ongoing battle to be taken seriously

ON THE surface nothing has changed. It is almost exactly five years since I last interviewed Jack Vettriano and he's not visibly greyer, not visibly fatter, not visibly older. In fact, he looks pretty much the same. But perhaps something is different. Where five years ago there seemed to be an air around him of expectation, of possibilities about to be realised, now he seems subdued, almost weary.

It could, of course, just be a bad day. The afternoon we meet, at his central London studio, he has just heard that a tabloid newspaper is looking into a story about him – digging a bit, asking around – and he just knows it's not going to be good. He's as charming and welcoming and mildly flirtatious as he ever was, but he's also so distracted and upset that I find myself reassuring him that, whatever it is, the story can only add to the Vettriano image. He is, after all, meant to be a very bad boy – but he's not really comforted at all.

It is the first indication that the 'living life on his own terms and sod convention' mystique of Vettriano's legend is more complex than it seems, because you feel he actually cares very much indeed what people think of him.

The publication of a new book marks a kind of re-emergence for Vettriano, the so-called 'people's painter' who has come to personify the clash between what the public like in art and what they are told they should like. During the past five years, one of his works, The Singing Butler, became the most expensive Scottish painting ever sold at auction, fetching 744,500. Not long afterwards a newspaper discovered that the images in the painting bore an uncanny resemblance to those in a 17 artists' reference book. All part of the box office.

Now, after a few quiet years punctuated by a handful of headlines surrounding his love life, Vettriano is sedately back in the news: painting the daughter of the Princess Royal, the Olympic horsewoman Zara Phillips, for the BBC's Sport Relief event, and publishing a new book, which shines a spotlight on his life – his three exquisitely furnished homes, in Kirkcaldy, London and Nice; his painting techniques; his continuing obsession with women of a certain type. It's part of a dichotomy that seems central to his character – this willingness, even eagerness, to expose parts of his life, even as he abhors the consequences.

That becomes immediately clear as we begin to discuss his attitude to Scotland. He still has his Kirkcaldy apartment, his parents still live there and he returns home two or three times a year. Yet he himself makes reference to a quote I'd already spotted in a magazine a couple of weeks ago. He was asked if he loved his country. "I love Scotland's landscape," he'd replied. "But some of the people in that landscape have made it intolerable to me."

The first reason he gives is the lack of anonymity. In London he says he can stomp round Knightsbridge carrying his message bags and no one gives him a second glance; in Scotland he feels exposed, and he doesn't like it. "I think what people don't realise is that people like Billy Connolly and Sean Connery – and I'm not saying I'm on a par with them – have to get out of Scotland.

"I mean, we do well for a country of five million, but London is really where it happens, you know? You just have to get out. There's just more opportunities. I don't want to live in a country where you can't go into Marks & Spencer without people nudging each other. I'm basically shy and I can't be anonymous in Scotland."

So why court publicity if you don't want to be noticed? "Well, it's a curious thing goes on mentally – you want to be both anonymous and recognised. Maybe some psychologist could come up with an explanation. I mean, you want it on your terms, but you're never going to get it. If I could put in the Evening News that I'll be walking up Princes Street and you can goggle all you like at me because I'll be dressed well and I'll look good, but that's not how it happens. It's not on your terms; it's on their terms and the press's terms."

It's a frank admission of the modern celebrity's dilemma – the ones who aren't quite rich enough to protect themselves from exposure without control. But you get the feeling the concept torments Vettriano more than most. Again perhaps, it's all about the worry of what people think of him. It's not just Scotland as goldfish bowl that has disillusioned him, though; he also says he gets more of a beating in Scotland than anywhere else.

He talks of reading articles about himself on Scottish newspaper websites, the nastiness of some of the readers' comments afterwards, and the hostility of the arts world too. "I think it's very difficult to be famous in your own backyard. Of course, the public there love me because they love 'the story'. But the establishment, the art world, clearly don't like the story." You really can hear the quote marks as he talks, and it's understandable. 'The story' is part of Vettriano's formidable arsenal of publicity-friendly credentials.

He was brought up in a mining family in Methilhill in Fife, became a mining engineer through night-school qualifications and taught himself to paint using a box of watercolours given to him by a girlfriend. He got married and got a mortgage but his hobby slowly took over his life. His marriage crumbled, he moved to Edinburgh to live his dream and went on to develop a style that captivated the art-buying public worldwide.

It's instantly recognisable, although his early bright paintings of retro figures have largely given way to darkly erotic, sexually suggestive work, with the participants constantly on the verge of shedding their elegant clothes.

Vettriano is evangelical about his view of the importance of sex to his work, to his own life and to society as a whole. It is, he believes, what makes the world go round, and he has enjoyed wading in the seedier depths of it. Again, all part of 'the story'.

As is his astonishing success. The Singing Butler is the best-selling print in the world by far and other iconic images such as The Billy Boys and Dance Me to the End of Time earn him a reputed half a million pounds every year through merchandising. His work isn't hung in any major public space so this is how the public access it.

According to his publishers, The Art Group, he's still the world's biggest-selling print artist by a large margin. The largest online print shop Easyart.com agrees – it views him as a phenomenon, 30% ahead of his nearest rival, Klimt, with Monet a distant third. The art world has accused Vettriano of painting posters, but he is cheerfully businesslike about the whole thing. It means that more people get to see his art, he says, and he benefits now, not after he's dead. "Is our purpose to please 200,000 people or to be very exclusive and please one? I think the former."

I put it to him, though, that saturation point must soon be reached. Gift shops groan under the weight of Vettriano merchandise – cards, coasters, mugs, mouse mats, umbrellas. The Singing Butler is everywhere. The umbrellas he seems to find particularly embarrassing. I suggest it isn't lessening the disdain of his peers in the art world. "I have made some serious errors," he admits. "I think sometimes I haven't been advised particularly well, but there are several licences out to produce certain things and once they've run their course I'm only going to allow works on paper – posters and diaries and prints and cards. No more umbrellas.

"Let me say, though – I don't know how often you go somewhere like the National Gallery or the Royal Academy in London, but by Christ they'll show you a bit about marketing. In Scotland when I went there they had an exhibition which included The Skating Minister, by Raeburn. Well, they had mugs, aprons, dishcloths, coffee cups and I thought, 'You're the people who may well criticise me, but you like to make a wee bit of money yourselves.'"

If he is the people's painter, does he have to define his success as an artist by how many prints he sells? Does he start to worry if his print sales start to fall? "No. My understanding is that sales are falling and that they have peaked – the popular ones, I mean, like The Singing Butler. But I don't think they'll ever completely die." He adds wryly: "There are still people out there who don't have one."

And what about original work? He hasn't had an exhibition since 2005 but he's considering another, and he has eight new paintings. Just as he evolved from his sunny beach images to sexually charged works, does he intend to change his subject matter again? "I think people don't really understand – I'll never do anything else because I simply can't. I could turn out an abstract painting for you but it wouldn't be coming from the heart. What I paint is what moves me. These people that I seem to surround myself with… a bunch of no-goods… but you know, I just like that world – a world of sexiness and hedonism. I like that because I'm a storyteller."

The difference in his newest paintings is that they were mostly done near his home in Nice, and some do seem sunnier and more innocent than his dark erotica. But he doesn't see it that way. "It's just a different landscape. The people there are just the same as the people here, apart from the French being a bit sexier. They're more up for it."

And at last we arrive at the elephant in the corner – the continuing refusal of public galleries to countenance his work. Richard Calvocoressi, the former head of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, once wrote, "We think Vettriano an indifferent painter and he is very low on our priorities." Vettriano believes they've said too much to change their minds now, but he's had some hopes of John Leighton, who succeeded Timothy Clifford as head of the National Galleries of Scotland.

"Clifford always wanted to buy Titians – and I'm not saying they're not important – but I'm saying you don't want to come to Scotland and go and look at the castle and then go and look at Italian art, and Scottish art is all in the basement. I think we deserve better than that. John Leighton said he'd reverse it and I liked that. He also said that he wasn't familiar with my work but he would consider it along with everybody else's, and I thought that was a nice thing to say."

When asked, however, Leighton is diplomatic, but unmoved. "Jack Vettriano's work attracts the interest of a wide public in this country and abroad, and that is good for the visual arts. We have no immediate plans to acquire one of his works but I have an open mind and I would never say never to any living Scottish artist being represented within the collection." Vettriano says he doesn't think about it and he does seem weary addressing it. But he is hurt.

The SNP culture minister Linda Fabiani, though, anxious to show her liking for the people's painter, was quoted as suggesting he lend her a painting to hang in her office. I ask if that gives him hope. At last, a hint of anger. "Frankly I think that was terribly badly handled. She just happened to mention it to a newspaper, which did a big piece on it before she had spoken to me, so I read it third-hand. I got a nice letter from her apologising, but if I'm absolutely honest I think that to ask to borrow a painting to hang in an office falls short of my expectations. The Scottish Parliament… how much did it cost? I don't know how much they spent on art but they didn't spend any on my art, when they could have. This has happened twice with MSPs – they've asked to borrow, and I think, 'No, this is about you more than me.'

"I think that given how well known I've become, and I am without doubt the best-known Scottish artist ever – I'm not saying the best, but by far the most popular – I just think that for my own country to deny that and sweep it under the carpet… it's almost as if they're embarrassed, when they should actually be celebrating. But that's buying committees for you."

I touch then on Vettriano's biggest embarrassment, the story that gave an arts establishment under attack for elitism a bit of a lifeline. It was the revelation that Vettriano had taken images for The Singing Butler and other paintings from The Illustrator's Figure Reference Manual, price 16.99. The implication was of plagiarism. He whips out a similar book to show me. "That book had figures with no background, just loads of figures showing how people move. There were pictures of a couple dancing and I thought, 'I'll use that couple,' and I used a few other figures.

"But the background and the story, they were mine. Don't tell me that's not creative. Anyone who knows anything about art will know an artist will do anything to get an image down on paper – tracing, pulling images out of magazines, anything. I'm a nightmare in my dentist's waiting-room. What the story was implying was that I lifted The Singing Butler completely out of a book and that's not fair. Lots of artists use photos – Francis Bacon did, I still do. The thing is, it was The Singing Butler. If it was a painting no one had heard of, it wouldn't have been a problem."

But knowing the battering he's taken over his art and how sensitive he is to it, I suggest it must have been devastating for him. "Well, it wasn't easy the day it made the front page of The Times. It was a great story – someone taking a 17-quid book and creating a painting that sold for three-quarters of a million. And if I'd have been reading about someone else, I'd have thought, 'Jesus Christ, the poor bastard must be feeling terrible.' So yeah, a great story. I just wish it hadn't happened to me."

And he, of course, was the one asked to paint Zara Phillips for Sport Relief, a fact that he is aware might cause still more resentment among his peers. "I can see other artists getting pissed off about it. I'm not a portrait artist and it's not the best painting in the world, but they asked me. I can see they resent me but the thing is, the harder I work, the luckier I am." His next big commission is again a celebrity one – three portraits of Jackie Stewart and his wife, soon to be unveiled in Monaco.

I ask finally about his personal life – a two-year relationship has just ended. Maggie Millar, a journalist from Kirkcaldy, left her husband to go to Nice with Vettriano. She met the artist when she interviewed him for a local paper. It's believed she was the model for A Very Married Woman among other paintings. He doesn't want to discuss the relationship.

He seems, to the observer, quite isolated. "I like company on my own terms. I know it doesn't work on my terms – you have to realise you're in a relationship with someone. They do matter. But somehow I convince myself they don't. I reserve the right to jump on a plane and go to Nice or Scotland or wherever at a moment's notice, and that's not conducive to a relationship."

Perhaps, I say, he has never grown up, and he agrees. He has long viewed his life, though, as a second chance – that he rescued himself in the nick of time as he was slipping into a kind of living death with his job and his mortgage and his marriage. He says he's now living a life many men envy.

The women in his paintings are idealised, impeccably groomed, sexually confident creatures. A lot of women love them, and they clearly also love him. But he balks when I suggest he doesn't see women as anything other than sexual beings. Yet, honest to a fault, he admits that he could never love a woman if she wasn't beautiful to look at, however clever or charming or witty or kind she happened to be.

"It amuses me when I hear men saying it doesn't matter what a woman looks like as long as she's interested in politics or whatever. I think, 'Yeah, right.' That's humbug. It's the old madonna-and-whore situation. Men want a woman who keeps the house and looks after the kids on the one hand, and, on the other, a woman who looks like Marilyn Monroe in the bedroom, and you can't find that in one woman. They see a woman turning into a domestic person and it spoils things." Which is why he generally lives apart from girlfriends, while it lasts. So he never has to face the reality of the daily grind and his lover getting flu or spots? "I don't want to. And what it comes down to is that I can walk away because I don't have all those ties – mortgage and so on. I'm not saying it's a great thing, but, no, I don't have to work at it."

I suggest that he's never really been in love then – never cared enough to not mind the spots and the flu, and, though I can see the idea upsets him and he resists it at first, he finally accepts it. Maybe he doesn't want it, then, if true love would be a chain on his life. "Well," he responds cautiously, "there are days amidst all this – the money and fame – I do feel some days that I missed out on one thing. I do regret not having a child and the pleasure that might have brought. I never allowed it to happen. They make it seem so great on TV, the dad out with his wee girl. But I know me. The minute it got hard, I'd say, 'Go back to your mum along the road.' Because you'd have to have separate homes." Is he lonely? "Sometimes. What props me up is who I am. If I was Norman Nobody I might sit here wondering, 'Where did life go wrong?' But I just pick up the phone when I get like that and I have company. I'm happy to be alone. I need solitude."

He says he has no friends in the art world and while he says he enjoys being a maverick, the down-side is he has become socially reticent. "Tonight I'm going to a viewing of work for Sport Relief. All the other artists will be there. I'll feel uncomfortable because of my fame. People saying, 'That's Jack Vettriano… don't look! Look now!' And I'm thinking – have I got spots? I don't want people to look at me. A psychologist would have a field day."

As I leave, he's back at once to fretting about the tabloid and the possible story to come, not because of any horrors that might emerge, but because of what people will think of him. And I find myself wondering if Vettriano is a man living every bloke's dream or an object lesson in being careful what you wish for. Possibly even he's not quite sure himself.

• The artist will be signing copies of Jack Vettriano: Studio Life (25, Pavilion) in Borders, Buchanan Street, Glasgow, from 6pm on Tuesday, and in Waterstone's, George Street, Edinburgh, from 6pm on Wednesday

 
 
 

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