Speaking ahead of his first major retrospective opening in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the Fife-born artist said he had previously believed a full generation of Scotland’s arts establishment would have to retire for his work to be appreciated.
The 61-year-old was dismayed the Edinburgh-based National Galleries turned down the chance to buy a self-portrait he had painted for its new-look Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Instead, they said they had only agreed to take it on loan.
As a result, the artist sold the work to a private buyer who is now lending it to Kelvingrove to be part of the major Vettriano exhibition.
The Scotsman revealed last year how the Glasgow gallery had reached an agreement with Vettriano to stage the biggest ever retrospective of his work, and the display of 101 works, which runs from tomorrow until February, is expected to be one of the most popular in the gallery’s history.
Vettriano said he had immediately agreed to the retrospective of his work there, following an approach more than two years ago, saying it was a “no-brainer”.
He yesterday told The Scotsman: “I never thought for a second I would see a major retrospective in my lifetime.
“What I felt needed to happen was a whole generation shift, so that the people who currently run art establishments in Scotland would have all retired.
“They would get new blood in and the first thing they would want to do is say, ‘How could you have ignored Vettriano?’ Because that is what they’ve done. I never had any expectations of an exhibition like this at all until my agent got a call.
“Although I was absolutely delighted that a portrait of mine was hung in the new portrait gallery, Kelvingrove’s ethos appealed to me much more. It was built for the people and is used extensively by the people. It’s quite happy to put on AC/DC and Kylie Minogue exhibitions, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, unlike some other galleries.”
Vettriano, who famously taught himself to paint by copying other artists, revealed he was still wounded by the “cruel and hurtful” treatment he had suffered at the hands of some of his critics.
But he said he had no regrets about licensing his work to be reproduced for sale, despite being accused of producing “shopping mall art” and “dim erotica”, saying he made more from copies of The Singing Butler than the £750,000 his most famous painting made at auction in 2004.
The artist – who took up painting when his then girlfriend bought him a set of watercolours for his 21st birthday – came to public prominence in 1989 when he submitted two paintings to the Royal Scottish Academy’s annual exhibition. Both were accepted and sold on the first day.
His work has been snapped up by Sir Alex Ferguson and Jack Nicholson, and he has staged exhibitions all over the world.
However, he was repeatedly shunned by Scotland’s arts establishment, only winning the backing of the National Galleries two years ago when it emerged that a self-portrait of the artist would be going on display at the refurbished portrait gallery.
He said: “We actually deliberately held it back from sale in the hope that the National Galleries would buy it, but they said no.
“We went on to sell it on the understanding that the new owner would lend it to the portrait gallery for three years. But that time’s now up and it’s gone now.
“The owner is in Switzerland. It will be going there after the exhibition.
“Naturally, I would’ve liked them to have bought it – I feel it’s the best self-portrait I have done. It was disappointing, but at least it showed there were cracks in the ice and maybe things are moving in a better direction now.
“I get asked about this all the time. I’m bored with it and I’m sure the public are bored with it. However, I feel I have been very cruelly treated by some of the critics and some of the headlines have been hurtful.
“I wish that they had criticised the work, but they don’t. There’s a vein that runs through it that is personal. That’s what really annoys me.”
Covering a period of 20 years, from 1992-2012, the exhibition is the first time many of the works have been on public display, including several brand new works.
However Vettriano admitted he had completely lost track of many of the early works he produced before he became a household name.
He said: “If I’d known I would be sitting here in Kelvingrove today, I would have made a proper record of everything that happened and what paintings I did. I’m vague about the sequence of events.
“There are paintings out there that I’ll never see again, because I never took photographs of them or kept a record of them. I’ve no idea how many there are, but it is maybe as much as 20 per cent of what I’ve done.
“There are people who will have them and are quite happy to sit on them, but it would be nice to see them again.
“Those are paintings from the very early days, the quality will be a bit dubious, but the one fear I had about the retrospective is that the early work would not stand up, but it does.
“People will see in the exhibition that I struggled with certain things and that I am technically much better now, but these early paintings have a certain charm that I love. I’ve not seen some of them for 20 years and it’s been lovely to see them again.
“In the early days when I was asked if I would allow my work to be reproduced I knew I was walking a thin line. If knew people say ‘how could he do that?’
“But what would Van Gogh have done said if someone had told him they could get him 20 francs a print if they went to the home of the common man. He would jumped at the chance. I thought why should somebody need £50,000 to buy an original when they could have a print for 50 quid.
“How could not you not be proud of producing an image that has sold 10 million prints around the world, as The Singing Butler has?”
Born as Jack Hoggan in St Andrews in 1951, Vettriano was brought up in the Fife coastal town of Methil.
He left school at 16 to become an apprentice mining engineer and also had a spell as a bingo caller before taking up painting.
After teaching himself by copying artists like Caravaggio and Monet, and taking inspiration from regular visits to Kirkcaldy’s art gallery, he sold his first original pieces in the late 1980s.