Time to move out of the tenement

IT’S ALMOST A DECADE SINCE AVRIL Paton’s painting of a Glasgow tenement block, Windows in the West, was bought by the city of Glasgow for the Gallery of Modern Art. There was something cosily familiar about the painting’s cheery, glowing character, the snow-covered roof and the warm yellow stone, the embracing perspective.

Ask almost anyone in Scotland, but particularly in Glasgow, if they’ve heard of Paton and her painting, and they are likely to think for a while and then remember: the tenement building. Paton has turned the picture into a small industry, selling what she estimates are up to 30,000 prints through several editions and 100,000 cards. "That picture of a tenement painting," says my hairdresser. "The one standing all on its own?" Possibly you feel you know the painting even if you don’t. It carries a nostalgic, storybook charm; Katie Morag in Glasgow’s West End.

So the gallery crowd at the Mitchell Library this week are in for a shock. This Thursday will see the opening of Paton’s first show in seven years, and it’s a big one. About 70 works are on sale, including Windows in the West, borrowed back from Glasgow for a new showing; 25 per cent of the asking price from each painting sold will go to Enablelink, run by the charity Enable to help people with learning disabilities form new friendships. Another tenement picture, Bedsits, will be put up for a silent auction.

But anyone rushing in to snap up one of Paton’s appealing scenes of Glasgow life will quickly have to readjust their glasses; there are barely a handful. The 63-year-old artist has taken her earnings from picture and print sales - primarily of Windows, but also several other very printable pictures - and gone abstract.

She has given up the labour-intensive detail of watercolour, egg tempura and gouache, which she used for her Glasgow scenes, and opted for closely worked, yet dreamy, swirls and hard lines of pastel. Suggestions of towers or crosses, distant galaxies, dark holes; titles such as Secrets, Arcana, La Balance, Other Worlds, The Warning Rustle of the Sage Grass. Some explore themes of death. One is titled 9/11. But art school industrial, it is not.

Avril Paton lives in an airy top-floor flat in Glasgow’s West End, with hard-wood floors and a sharp sense of taste. The visitor climbing to her door is greeted by a sudden explosion of pot-plants and greenery on the stairs. Her daughter, a singer, is visiting from Quebec, where she claims fourth place in the Canadian city’s video charts.

Directly across the street, draped in blue construction plastic, is the building whose roof she painted in Topping Out Day, when owners and agents come to inspect a new roof. Just around the corner is the tiny flat where, working as a caretaker in lieu of rent, she looked over the tenement building across the road. She says Windows in the West, five feet by four feet, took her six months to complete, in between interruptions by elderly ladies seeking help with their flats.

Paton was born in April 1941, during the wartime bombardment of Glasgow. Soon after, her mother left the city for Arran, where Paton grew up in what might be called a family of neglected painters. Her grandfather, Donald Paton, was an artist, described on her website as "a water colourist in the Victorian tradition", but not one who turns up in any guide to Scottish art. One of his paintings hangs on her kitchen wall, and she calls him an inspiration to her work.

Her parents, Hugh and Mardi, met as students at the Glasgow School of Art, and married in 1937. Avril followed in their footsteps to the school, but she lasted just a year before getting married. "I had a year at art school, and I failed to gain admittance for a second," she says. "I absolutely loathe that fact."

She later returned to Arran as a single mother of two; she returned to Glasgow once the children had grown up, and there she has stayed. She has given very few interviews in the past, she says. Now she has "learned the error of my ways" and is "self-promoting".

A print of Paton’s market picture, The Barras, hangs over the sofa in the sitting room. Painted in 1984, taking five months to complete, it was sold to Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums in 1987, her first major sale to a public body. She talks through the picture and its composition: the trader, the policemen with a rough customer walking beside them, a figure frowning with a red beard who was a celebrated tramp. She still enjoys crowds, she says; she uses sketches and photographs, and a memory for character to capture the scene.

A huge painting of Paton’s The Preview is back in her studio. There are about 40 caricatures staring at us, wondering what to think. There is another of a park scene she is proud of, Beyond the Gates, though it hasn’t sold. But on another wall are the ghostly, charcoal lines of what she calls her first success at abstract.

"I have been trying to do abstracts all my life and they are not easy," she says. "I hope the good will that I have got will get people to take a look at art that they perhaps don’t like. I never set out to paint the paintings that made me reasonably successful. People like it because it’s easy to understand. I didn’t set out to do that kind of painting. Now I want to be a more spiritual painter. I just don’t want to paint what I look at any more. The money I have made from the success of Windows in the West and other work of that type from that period has allowed me complete freedom to do what I want as an artist." The problem is that a lot of those paintings she considers to be really good have not sold.

Paton is sensitive to criticism; she knows people mutter "illustration" behind her back. Of Windows in the West, she says: "I’m aware that there’s a big section of people that would regard it as ghastly. It’s wrong to call it ghastly, because it’s real. It’s not an invention. It’s a powerful image and it means something to a lot of people."

Whether you love Paton’s paintings, or think they are tripe, she has at least tried something new. Jack Vettriano, from what one sees, responded to surging sales by delivering more of the same. When I mention his name to Paton, she pulls a face. "Please," she says.

One Glasgow art dealer, who asked not to be named, groans loudly when he hears another article about Paton is in the works. "I think they are pretty awful pictures," he tells me. "Windows in the West had a certain iconic quality; it’s all right if you take it for what it is - the talented amateur."

Abstract, he says, will prove much more difficult. "Once people start expecting to be paid big sums of money when serious painters are not paid that much it’s rather sad. Vettriano is not on his own. There are lots of people who paint as badly who make lots of money."

It was Barclay Lennie, of Barclay Lennie Fine Art Ltd in Glasgow, who sold The Barras to Glasgow. Asked what he thinks of Paton’s abstract work, he says: "It’s different. It was a bit of a shock when I first saw it, because I’m used to her Glasgow subjects, and I’ve always done my best to encourage her to do that. But I think it’s nice that an artist changes direction. If Picasso had died at the age of 26, he wouldn’t be the type of painter we know. If you keep doing the same thing, folk get fed up with it."

Lennie hopes the new work will sell, for Paton’s sake and for the charity. "There’s every chance that people will say the same quality is there. The reaction of people who are perhaps thinking in terms of tenement paintings will be very interesting to see."

Asked about Windows, he says: "Very Glasgow. It’s a bit trite to say that, but you know what I mean. Tenements are part of the heart of Glasgow, and anyone from Glasgow immediately takes to the picture."

IN 1996 IT WAS THE GLASGOW DIRECTOR of museums, Julian Spalding, who bought Windows in the West for the city. Talk to anyone involved in Glasgow’s current contemporary art scene and Spalding’s tenure is perceived as a kind of dark age, when the chance to buy works by the likes of Douglas Gordon, video artist and Turner Prize winner, was lost. Spalding is unrepentant - certainly on the Gordon front, saying he saw his job as buying art with a "lasting quality". Interestingly, he singles out what was special about Windows in the West as the moment rather than the subject. He heard, he says, about a painting hanging at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall that "a lot of people were stopping and looking at".

"I’m always interested when I hear that there’s public interest in something. I went along and sure enough it was a very captivating painting. What it caught was that moment when it was nearly dark, but people haven’t drawn the curtains yet, and you can walk along the street and look into windows, and there’s the light inside, and the light outside. People are going about their business in a private way; at the same time they have not yet hidden their private world. There is the balance between the inner life and the outer life that is just beautifully caught.

"That is particularly vivid in a street with tenements because you can have a whole bank of different lives. It’s very evocative of that and I have never seen anybody do that quite as well. It is a classic painting, in a way."

That said, while Spalding remains happy to have bought Paton’s painting, even if it annoyed the "po-faced art critics", he doesn’t think Paton has caught the same magic in her other work. "It must be quite infuriating," he says.

The Gallery of Modern Art has been changing its spots since Spalding left. Windows in the West was the top-selling print of any work in the GoMA shop, but the picture itself was dispatched to the museum’s Nitshill site. The official line is that this was simply part of "regular display changes". At the recent launch of the city’s new art festival, Glasgow International, dark and painstakingly contemporary work was the order of the day - a big draw will be new works by Gordon, and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Avril Paton is at pains not to insult people who love Windows in the West, but she says it is not her favourite. "Please don’t write that I don’t appreciate that so many people loved this image," she says. "I find that quite amazing, because I don’t understand it at all. I wasn’t aware that it was going to be anything other than just another painting for an exhibition. I lived there for four to six years before I started the painting. I used to look at that building continually and enjoy it. I enjoyed seeing what people were doing. I would stand in the window, drink a cup of tea. Once it was painted, I never looked at it again."

• New Looks is at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, 11 March until 16 April.