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The peoples' painter
Jack Vettriano on stage
Jack Vettriano being interviewed on stage
Last updated: 10 January 2005 1022 GMT
lineJack Vettriano is well known for his popular romantic paintings which capture dreamy, enigmatic moments between men and women.

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Jack Vettriano

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Vettriano: The people's artist

Vettriano fetches record price

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Those who have never heard of Jack Vettriano will almost certainly have seen his paintings on posters, mugs and other assorted everyday items. They have a dreamy, almost film-like quality that capture romantic or intimate moments between men and women.

He is undoubtedly a extremely popular artist as the capacity crowd at Cheltenham Town Hall clearly indicated. He was there to talk about his life and work.

Jack's beginnings

Jack Vettriano

When he left school, he started work as an apprentice mining engineer in the Scottish region of Fife. Was he encouraged to try any other careers at the time?

"I don't think my parents ever realised there were any other careers. I love them dearly but they lived in a limited world and their thoughts were limited. I don't think they ever thought any of their children could paint or even go on a foreign vacation. I think they brought me up the way they'd been brought up - to try and get through the system without going to prison. It was as simple as that.

To be a man in that town [Fife] meant you had to drink 14 pints of lager before you went to the toilet. It was very much a place where a man was measured by how much he could drink not by how many books he'd read."

Jack's grandfather used to bring back little white betting slips upon which he used to sketch and that was how he first became interested in drawing. When did it occur to him to start painting?

"It didn't actually occur to me, it occurred to a girl I was seeing when I was 21 after she saw some drawings I'd done. She got me a box of paints and told me I should try and colour those [drawings] in! Later I thought 'right, I'm going to be a real artist' and I went out and bought one of those boxes with six tubes of paint, three brushes, a palette to work on, and I taught myself.

I went to the local library and there wasn't a lot [of art books] there - just a few impressionists and some of the Italian masters. I just decided that the only real way was to just copy what was done [in those books]. I started off with Monet's Poppy Fields."

He continued to paint through his 20s and 30s before applying to the art schools in Edinburgh. His portfolio was rejected and the whole episode was a defining moment for Jack. He explains:

"I thought that I'd study the history of art as well as drawing and painting so I applied to Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art. My portfolio was rejected.

After, I contacted the colleges and said 'I'm a mature student and this means a lot to me, it's a whole life change going into full time study', and I wanted them to say to me 'this is where your portfolio failed and here's where you can do better'. They said they don't enter into any discussion with anybody and I just thought I'll do it my own way.

In retrospect that was a blessing in disguise because I think that unfortunately, but understandably, a lecturer is trying to turn a student into his own image - that's part of why he's a lecturer, because he wants to impart his knowledge into you. If I'd have gone I just wouldn't be where I am now."

Jack hit a defining point in his thirties where he looked at himself and his art critically, and really assessed what he was doing. He explained:

"What I think no amateur artist has is a belief in his own ideas, and actually in having ideas. Being an amateur artist I thought 'what are you ever going to do that's going to change anything?'. I eventually thought 'what is it that means anything to you?' and I remember sitting there, thinking about a few things that always meant a lot to me were love and romance, and a kind of melancholic look at my own youth. I worked those things into a couple of paintings; put those into the Scottish Academy and both sold. It was like a shot of pure adrenaline.

Within a couple of weeks the gallery returned and said 'we love your work, we would love some more of it, we think it can sell'. I realised there was a future in it after that.

At the time my marriage was all but over and I thought that there was an opportunity to stop working, take a chance and see if I could make a go of it. I was pretty sure that I could do it as a single man. I got evicted six times within the first six months of becoming professional but eventually I was making more [money] than I ever did - it was astonishing."

A record sale

Perhaps the most famous painting by Jack Vettriano - The Singing Butler - smashed all expectations when a mystery bidder bought it for £744,800 at a Sotheby's auction.

The Singing Butler painting by Jack Vettriano

The painting (shown above), which depicts a couple dancing on a windswept beach, had been expected to fetch up to £200,000 at the sale but auctioneers were stunned as bidding ended at nearly three-quarters of million pounds.

It was something that not even Jack was prepared for. He revealed his surprise at the sale:

"I was absolutely astonished. Before the auction I was asked how much I thought it would go for and I said £100,000, maybe £150,000. Sotheby's said £250,000 which was nice.

I didn't go to the auction but I had a mobile link. I just couldn't believe what was going on. I think in fetching that kind of money at auction meant that a few people were hell-bent on buying it. I'm chuffed to bits that it fetched that amount."

And how was this well known and loved painting inspired? Jack replied:

"I wish I could tell you a great story about me seeing a couple dancing but it just didn't happen like that at all. The beach started off because in one of the very first exhibitions I had, a small gallery in Perthshire, I did this painting of a man on the beach and the purple effect of his being on the wet sand. This old dear came over to see me and said 'You know, son, you're really good at doing beaches'.

At the time I was busy doing paintings of people in bars and homes, and I got to thinking that the game of love is played out everywhere. Why is it when we're in love we're drawn to beaches? You just want to be on an open beach with the one you love. I thought about my youth and the days when you could go to Spain for fifty quid for a few weeks. So I started thinking about this couple on the beach, dancing.

I really don't know where the singing butler came in. I put the butler in because I wanted to balance the picture. I wondered what the couple were dancing to, and so he was singing. I wish I could give you a wonderful story here but this is not one of them!"

The Singing Butler has been reproduced on posters, mugs and biscuit tins across the world. How does Jack feel about that? He said:

"There's a wee point I'd like to make about that. People have said to me 'I've seen that butler everywhere'. Okay, I may have erred on one or two decisions to let it get put on biscuit tins and stuff but I'm a believer that [art] should be seen by people and that you shouldn't need to spend fifty grand to look at a painting.

I thought it'd make me a couple of thousand pounds a year, I had no idea it'd take off like this. I am proud of it but there are times when I get a bit fed up with it - I mean, I can paint it in my sleep now!"

Jack revealed that The Singing Butler could have been the property of the Scottish Arts Council in 1992 but they decided not to buy it. He explains:

"What's really sad is that the painting [the Singing Butler] was offered to the Scottish Arts Council in 1992.

The Scotsman [newspaper] contacted the woman who made the decision not to buy it, and she's now in New York, and she couldn't remember it which fair hurt me, you know!

The reality was that the Scottish Arts Council had £100,000 to spend that year on new purchases and there's a massive pile of transparencies on her desk and she's got to go through them all. You can understand why she decided to say 'that's not quite what we need'."

The art establishment

Today, his prints sell more than those by old masters such as Monet and Van Gogh, and his distinctive paintings are often reproduced on all manner of everyday items.

He's regarded as Scotland's most popular artist yet none of his pictures can be found in any of the country's national galleries. He has long felt snubbed by the arts establishment. Does it bother him? Jack responds:

"It bothers me from the point of view that the National Galleries have a budget each year to spend money on the acquisition of new paintings and that money is our money. They don't take into account what people want. Basically they have what they want. What grieves me is that people who enjoy my work can't see an original because there are none to be seen, they [the galleries] don't like them and won't buy them. I think there should be some mechanism that allows other tastes to be taken into account.

You can't say we want to encourage people to come and enjoy museums and galleries and not give them what they want to see. It's clear as day that I've got a huge following in this country, which I'm very proud of, and it's just such a shame they can't see any of my work."

Does he think this situation will change over the next ten or twenty years? He said:

"Well, the art world being the sick place it is, what will change is that when some guy like Nicholas Serota retires from the Tate Modern the next guy who comes in will think 'what can I do to make a name for myself?' and he'll say 'I'll buy a couple of Jack Vettriano's paintings'.

People will be going 'I can't believe he's bought a couple of Jack Vettriano's' and that's the art world. I don't want to swear but I don't care for it very much.

That may happen but the people who're in place just now are not about to [buy any paintings]. They've dug a hole for themselves with me and they're not about to say 'actually, I've made a mistake'. They can't do that."


One critic once said Jack Vettriano should be allowed to paint as long as no-one takes him seriously. Judging by his immense popularity at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, it's clear that a lot of people take him very seriously as an artist and they're most important ones - the public. He really does live up to his title as the peoples' painter.

This piece is based on the Jack Vettriano interview at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature on Sunday 17th October 2004.

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