Bragging about Vettriano: People's painter

IT is familiar from count-less reproductions, on cards, posters, mousemats, umbrellas and biscuit-tins. The picture of a couple in evening dress dancing on a windswept beach is Britain’s most popular print.

Next month, the original of The Singing Butler by Jack Vettriano is expected to fetch 250,000 at auction in Edinburgh. This would be a record for a living artist, and quite possibly set the 53-year-old former mining engineer from Fife on the way to selling a 1 million painting in his lifetime.

However, while Vettriano’s distinctive fusion of working-class dreams and Hollywood glamour have made him a public favourite, he is still almost universally dismissed by the art establishment - for being voyeuristic, even pornographic, and for "colouring in".

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Tomorrow night, on the South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg likens Vettriano to Monet and Van Gogh - artists who only gained real critical acceptance after their deaths. The programme, Jack Vettriano: The People’s Painter, asks if publicly-funded galleries are fulfilling their role by shunning such a popular artist.

In an era when pickled sharks, blow-up dolls and rotting fruit can be purchased for the nation in the name of art, the refusal to contemplate Vettriano seems increasingly perverse.

Once, Vettriano explains, he sent The Singing Butler to the Royal Scottish Academy’s summer exhibition. It was turned down.

"What concerns me is that the curators of galleries are spending public money, but not listening to the views of the people of the UK," he says. "They are pleasing themselves. It doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. There are some days when I care more than others, but on balance I care much less than I did.

"I’ve realised at last that being self-taught, being shut out of the art world is an advantage."

Vettriano enjoys his popularity, but is modest and ironic about his abilities. "I can’t go anywhere else artistically because I don’t know where to go: I don’t have the education. I know I’m not cutting-edge, I know I’m not pushing boundaries. I’m just making half-decent pieces of wallpaper."

Vettriano originals do not paper the walls of either the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh or the Tate in London. The curators of the galleries, Richard Calvocoressi and Nicholas Serota, are reluctant to discuss the merits of Vettriano’s works.

A spokesman for the National Galleries of Scotland says: "We take our commitment to Scottish art very seriously and the current generation of highly-acclaimed Scottish artists is well-represented. However, our resources are balanced against continually competing priorities, and inevitably there are limitations to what we can acquire."

Vettriano doesn’t need critical acclaim to pay the bills. He has homes in Fife, Oxford and Belgravia, London, and earns 500,000 a year from reproductions of his work. Yet his rejection rankles and many in the art world feel he merits more recognition.

Arts writer and curator Julian Spalding suggests the stonewalling of Vettriano illustrates a widening gap between public taste and the art establishment. "There is a huge gap between the Turner Prize and what people have at home," he says. "They should be looking at Jack Vettriano and Beryl Cook, because they are potentially the artists of their time. Vettriano is not a profound artist but he is a very popular artist, and therefore he cannot be shown in this insular contemporary art world."

DAVID Lee, editor of Jackdaw magazine, is no fan of Vettriano’s work, but believes it has its place in modern galleries. He says: "His work is completely undemanding. It is like colouring in. The pictures are very static and appeal to the kind of people who watch soap operas and are unversed at looking at paintings.

"But there should be a place for Jack Vettriano. It’s their job to represent what’s being done at the present time."

The only public place where Vettriano’s work can be seen is the Kirkcaldy Art Gallery in Fife, to which the artist donated two of his paintings. Yet many of his works hang on private walls in the homes of celebrity collectors such as Jack Nicholson, Robbie Coltrane, Sir Tim Rice, Sir Terence Conran and restaurateur Raymond Blanc - who has become a friend and created a Vettriano Suite at his Oxford hotel/restaurant Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons.

Mr Blanc said: "I was instantly intrigued by Jack Vettriano’s work. It reflected, I believe, everything the British try to hide. It’s fantasy and drama; the daring power and strength of woman-kind, the assumption of control."

Bidding is expected to be fierce next month when 14 Vettriano works - including The Singing Butler - are sold at Hopetoun House, near Edinburgh. When it first went on sale, in 1991, at the Soltice Gallery in Edinburgh, the picture fetched just 3,000. Seven years later, it sold for 32,000; now even a quarter of a million may be a conservative estimate.

Collectors will have another chance to own an original Vettriano in June when 35 paintings go on sale at the Portland Gallery in London, with prices between 20,000 and 75,000.

Tom Hewlett, of the Portland Gallery, who acts as Vettriano’s agent, says demand for his work is higher than ever and that the artist’s once-prodigious work rate has slowed down.

"He used to have a manic work rate where he would get up at four or five every morning and start painting," says Mr Hewlett. "Now he is taking things much more easy and the quality of the work is better."

Vettriano’s Fife upbringing is still significant in his paintings. In his interview for the South Bank Show, he reminisces about the dance halls and fairgrounds of his youth and speaks candidly about the sexual tension underlying his work.

"Androgynous women do nothing for me," he says, admitting he draws on nostalgic memories of 1950s Fife, when factory girls dressed like Hollywood starlets and mine workers dressed like Bogart. "I am trying to depict the problems and the pleasures of relationships," he says. "It is a very sexually charged world."

Vettriano was born Jack Hoggan in 1951. His childhood in the mining town of Leven, Fife, was happy. "My father was a miner. There were four kids. We were poor but we had what we needed and we did odd-jobs. Everyone worked hard."

He was an inattentive pupil and left school at 15, expecting to follow his father into the colliery.

Already, he says, his chief obsession was women - "not beer or darts. Always women - especially the kind of red-lipsticked sirens who frequented the local ballrooms". Only much later did this boyish voyeurism find an outlet in art.

Vettriano began to paint when a girlfriend gave him a watercolour set for his 21st birthday. He learned by making copies of the masters, a centuries-old way of learning, reproducing works by Monet, Dali and Caravaggio.

Today, he paints from photographs posed by models. "I have tried working from life, but I am too nervous to do it. I can’t get any work done," he says.

He likes to paint to music, particularly the dirges of Leonard Cohen."I need to feel emotionally uncomfortable to work," Vettriano explains.

"The lyrics help me with ideas. I’ve been asked to do Desert Island Discs and I’m trying to choose. So far, I’ve only got wrist-slitting ballads, but that’s what I like."

Vettriano, who only turned professional at 38, is modest about his skills. "I’m not at all gung-ho. I’m far too nervous to accept commissions. I did a Bluebird series for Terence Conran but it drove me crazy. I’d rather do things I want and if people buy them, fine. I work bloody hard. I get up early and paint all day. I make little dramas on canvas. There are still things I do which are technically wrong.

"But after 30 years, I can do what I need and that’s enough for me. Bacon and Lowry did things ‘wrong’. They were self-taught."

Vettriano enjoys popularity, saying he would rather paint for thousands than to a world of art experts who refuse to acknowledge his gifts. But he entertains a secret hope that history may recognise his talent.

"People associate popularity with trash," he says. "But as Leonard Cohen says, if something is very popular, there is a very good reason for that."

TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY

RAYMOND BLANC

Restaurateur and hotelier

I was instantly intrigued by Jack Vettriano’s work. It’s fantasy and drama; the daring power and strength of woman-kind and the assumption of control. Our meeting was a highly charged meeting of minds, and our conversation was fuelled with emotion and creativity. The friendship that followed has been energised with the passions of two self-taught men. With Jack’s work in mind I created the "Vettriano Suite" at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. It is a study of the male sensuality and an extension of fantasy, romance and humour.

TERENCE CONRAN

Designer, restaurateur

There’s a terrific frisson in many of his paintings: I love the narrative detail. A man straightening his tie as a woman fastens her dress could be a couple getting ready for an evening out; but then you notice the cheap electric fire, the reflection in the mirror of the bare light bulb and another man lurking in the doorway, and an altogether different story constructs itself. The other thing I particularly admire is Jack Vettriano’s appreciation of the quality of light, whether it’s the harsh light from the window, the perfect sunlight at the seaside, or the romantic couples dancing in misty white light, their forms reflected in pools of water.

SIR TIM RICE

Lyricist and writer

Jack Vettriano has the ability to make you feel nostalgic for things you never actually experienced in the first place. He takes you back to a mood and time that you know so well although you were never there.

When you first look at one of his paintings you are an outsider, illicitly observing a cool, sharp world of edgy romance and sexual tension. The men are tougher than those you know, the women are unavailable.

After a while you can see behind the confident poses and languid come-ons; these are people no more in control of their destinies than you are of yours.

SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY OF MODERN ART

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is a historical collection of international standing. We take our commitment to Scottish art very seriously and the current generation of highly acclaimed Scottish artists is well represented. However, our resources are balanced against continually competing priorities, and inevitably there are limitations to what we can acquire. We recognise that Vettriano is popular with members of the public, but so are numerous other artists not represented in our collection.