Interview: Gerald Laing, artist

Gerald Laing experienced an epiphany when he moved to Scotland, ditching pop art for sculpture and setting up home in a castle

• Laing in his studio

Rewards await those who raise their eyes to the sky. What a surprise, to catch sight of a chorus line of bare-breasted beauties on the highest reaches of the Standard Life Assurance Building at 3 George Street, Edinburgh.

I have passed and admired them countless times since, marvelling at their insouciance in a city renowned for its pursed-lips mentality.

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I had to look again after Gerald Laing, who sculpted The Wise and Foolish Virgins, told me: "Patti Smith is one of them, off the cover of Radio Ethiopia."

But of course! She's unmistakable, there in the centre of the bronze frieze.

Her inclusion makes perfect sense. Laing rocketed to fame in 1962, when still at art school, with his iconic pop art portrait of Brigitte Bardot. Throughout a career marked by great highs and desperate lows, one constant has been his facility in fusing pop culture with high culture.

A Geordie by birth, Laing's roots stretch deep into Scottish soil. On his father's side, Alexander and Farquar Laing left the Forfar region for Newcastle in the 1850s. But with much of the family still in Scotland, cross-border travel was the norm.

Laing's paternal grandfather hailed from Kilmarnock and was, he says, "a tremendous, typically Victorian, romantic Scotsman, in that he was a Freemason and had a huge collection of Burns (memorabilia], and he did salmon fishing and wrote really abysmal poems. So both sides are Scots, and we were always acutely aware of that."

He had a fairly miserable childhood. "I had two streaks of life: a well-to-do father who, when I was four in 1940, joined the army and was posted to India. He didn't come back until 1945. He paid my (public] school fees, and my mother took in lodgers."

As a lad he shared his grandfather's romantic streak, but he was enthralled by tales of King Arthur and his round table. Even then he dreamed of living in a crumbling castle – a fantasy he realised some decades later. This fascination with all things medieval found the youngster haunting churches, sketching tomb effigies and taking brass rubbings.

He had romantic ideas about joining the army as well. "My grandfather was killed in the First World War; my father was effectively removed by the Second World War – though I had no men in my life at all, the images of men that I had were all soldiers. I like soldiers. I understand soldiers, and so I feel entitled to speak out, as I do now (with my anti-war paintings] about military matters and conflict, because I know that mindset and I understand my role."

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Thinking to make the army a career – as a member of the Northumberland Fusiliers, the family regiment – Laing attended Sandhurst, where he revelled in an officer's lifestyle. "I loved Sandhurst because in its own terms it was perfect. It was quite hard, quite arcane, but it worked incredibly well. But I found the army incredibly boring and unsatisfactory. It just wasn't perfect any more.

"One of the things about being an artist is that when you paint something or sculpt it, you possess it. You take it to pieces and understand it perfectly. If you do a portrait of somebody, you look at them more intently than anyone's probably done in their lives, including their lovers. That's what I did (as a child] and then I put all of that focus into the army. I had fantasies about what the officer's life might be, based on some 18th-century idea. But it was not at all romantic and interesting."

Still, he did his best. Presuming that all officers dated actresses, he became a minor stage door Johnny. "I knew nothing. I was totally nave, brought up by a mother so appalling that nobody liked her, so we were totally isolated. I knew nothing about women, except that I liked them."

That raises a smile, because if there's one thing Laing mastered, it was his way with the ladies. He's been married three times and has six children.

A trip to see the London ballet proved life-altering. He "absolutely fell in love with prima ballerina Belinda Wright". She took the young officer under her wing, inviting him to stand in the wings for the rest of the engagement. "I'd had no idea: when they were on stage they seemed so graceful and relaxed, but when they come off stage they're panting for breath. I didn't realise until later what a fantastic gift this was, to see these people in action. I decided that I wanted to be a dancer, so I started taking lessons. If my brother officers had found out they'd have killed me – it was bad enough painting and drawing."

When their regiment was posted to Germany, Laing failed to find a dance instructor so took drawing lessons instead, from an ancient ex-university professor. "He was terrifically good and taught me a lot about drawing that I certainly couldn't learn at St Martins (Central St Martins School of Art in London]. Every artist must learn to draw. Those who disagree haven't done it. The problem is we've lost the teachers. You have to make your hand do what your eye and your mind want it to, otherwise it's just luck."

Back in Blighty, Laing extricated himself from the army and enrolled at Central St Martins. "I started living in extremely reduced circumstances in Whitechapel – in fact, in the house that Gilbert and George now have. Back then, Whitechapel was a slum.

"Before that I'd been in Finsbury Park with a whole lot of nocturnal fringe people – artists, but right on the edge. One was called Barry. He was very intelligent, widely read, and quite violent. I said to him that it was very difficult, having been a soldier, now being around so many talented art students. He said, 'Don't worry about it: artists, prostitutes and soldiers – they're all essential.'"

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Even before graduating, Laing won success and acclaim with his Bardot painting. Since he was not just older than his fellow students but also had a wife and child, he was understandably relieved to get off to such a promising start. "There was no money anywhere. My wife worked in a pub at night and I'd look after the baby, and go to school by day. I always had these amazing ups and downs."

In 1963, beginning the process of becoming an "American" artist, he spent his summer break in Manhattan. There he was welcomed into an elite circle that included everyone from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, to Jim Rosenquist and Robert Indiana, who employed Laing as his studio assistant.

Laing's pop art canvases of that era depict astronauts, drag-racing cars, and starlets, whose sleek veneers echoed those of the cars. He painted the first – possibly only – contemporary depiction of JFK's assassination. It should have been a great subject, he argues, but instead, the folded-up canvas was relegated to a New Jersey garden shed after a powerful gallery owner dubbed it "too much of a downer".

With his young family in tow, Laing returned to America after graduation. He exhibited at prestigious galleries, including Richard Feigen's, was shown in the US pavilion at the 1966 Sao Paolo Biennale, and had artwork acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art – despite his not being American.

But the political unrest of the time, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, soured him on the US. Convinced that the quality Americans most valued in artists was novelty, not talent, he returned to the UK in 1969 – this time with a new wife and muse, Galina, in tow.

They moved to Scotland, where he bought and began renovating Kinkell Castle, north of Inverness, which he'd discovered through the library of buildings at risk.

"When I got there, I found that the people who owned it were distant cousins. It's a tower house really, not a castle. It's small, neat, and interesting. It is actually a beautiful design, really easy to live in. There's a great hall on the first floor, where everything took place, and two private rooms. I got five bedrooms by using the attic space. On the ground level are two vaulted rooms. One, the storeroom, is now a dining room, and the other was the kitchen."

He believes the castle was constructed by a band of masons who travelled around Scotland building their design almost like a kit house. "I found a repeat of Kinkell's design on the other side of the Firth – exactly the same but from a later date, 1612; mine is 1594. I went with a friend and measured, and all the apertures, and the dimensions and size of the stair heads and everything are identical to within about six inches, which given their systems of measurement (back then], is accurate.

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"As money was released from ecclesiastical sources by the Reformation, and the feudal system of the clans shifted slightly, there was an emergent class of landowners in the Highlands." And how better to display your wealth, than by building a grand home? "My castle was built by John Roy Mackenzie, of the Mackenzies of Gairloch, who bought the land in 1570 from the Frasers."

Moving to Scotland effected a seismic shift in Laing's art. "It changed my life completely. I went to New York loosely as a pop artist, and then took part in the first minimal show at the Jewish Museum in 1965. But New York thinks the sun shines out of its ass. I came to Scotland, and you suddenly find the rest of the world is doing something else and full of ideas.

"My very, very sharp, abstract pieces looked lightweight. I looked at the landscape and started making massive sculptures that were similar images to the New York ones, but much more solid.

"And I ran into all sorts of people. In the New York scene, if you were at all groovy, you knew a limited range of people and had a limited range of ideas. In Scotland, I met Hugh and Antonia Fraser. She always had big house parties of writers, Tom Stoppard and people like that. Galina and I were very close to that world. I started realising that what I was doing didn't really connect with them as much as I wanted it to."

Hugh Fraser noticed that Laing's slit pyramid sculptures, arranged on a table, resembled conferring kings. "I thought, 'This is what I should do – make them anthropomorphic.' And in about 1973, I had been to a party in London and stumbled back in a taxi at about three in the morning. The guy with me was boring me terrifically, so I jumped out anywhere and found I was on the steps of Charles Sargeant Jagger's Artillery Memorial on Hyde park Corner. And I saw real sculpture, and that changed my direction."

For two decades Laing focused on sculpture, casting the works in his own foundry, and later his son's, in the Black Isle. Two of his most recognisable works, the statue of Sherlock Holmes and Axis Mundi were once (and will be again) fixtures of the Edinburgh landscape, the former at Picardy Place, the latter at Tanfield House on Inverleith Row.

"Researching Holmes was fun. I asked Jeremy Brett if he'd pose for it and he said, 'Yes, but I won't wear an Inverness cape, and I won't wear a deerstalker cap and I won't smoke the pipe.' I said, 'What will you do?' He said, 'Well, I see Holmes as a scientist so I'll wear a lab coat and hold a test tube.' I said, 'How on earth are people going to know who you are?'"

Laing has been dividing his time between Kinkell, where he's casting a huge statue of rugby players commissioned by the Rugby Union for its home at Twickenham, and a studio on Tite Street, in London. Mainly, though he's painting, returning to some of his earliest techniques and idioms to create dramatic images inspired by his disgust at Abu Ghraib and the Iraq war.

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And in keeping with his fascination with pop culture he made a series of paintings featuring Amy Winehouse, including The Kiss (2007), taken from a photo of the singer snogging Blake Fielder-Civil.

But the work in progress that intrigues me most – and which will surely be larger, in so many ways, than even his monumental sculptures – is his autobiography. It's hardly fair to ask such a talented artist to down tools, but I'm tempted to say, less painting, more typing.


• This article was first published in The Scotsman Magazine, April 17, 2010