In the run-up Jack Vettriano's retrospective at the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery (Glasgow) Pippa Jane Wielgos interviews the artist Jack Vettriano, former owner of "Heartbreak Publishing", whose painting"The Singing Butler" in 1992 became the best-selling image in Britain.
PJW: Where did the name of “Heartbreak” come from?
JV: In my early days as an artist, I thought it might be a good move to create a small range of greeting cards with my images on them, so that I could give these away to friends or sell them to local shops. I created a makeshift logo for the cards by taking a detail of a 1950s style tattoo that featured on the arm of one of my characters and the nostalgic, melancholic look of it inspired the name Heartbreak Publishing.
Twenty-five years later, when I had the opportunity to take back control of my publishing and we were looking for a name for our new business, it just felt right to revert to Heartbreak. It’s a wee bit melancholic and indulgent, I know, but it seems to fit well with the look of my work.
PJW: When did the opportunity of a retrospective at the Kelvingrove Gallery arise?
JV: My agent was contacted in 2011 by Dr Neil Ballantyne, the Manager of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, and he made the approach suggesting that a plan should be put in place to stage a Retrospective of my work. I’d always been a fan and regular visitor to Kelvingrove; in fact I would skive off work early to visit its permanent art collection and my time spent there was instrumental to my decision to become a painter. Their free admission policy allowed me to visit repeatedly and I used my time there to look at works by the Glasgow Boys, the Scottish Colourists and others – just trying to work out how they achieved certain things … a cloudy sky, a reflection in a pool of water on the beach … and to teach myself, in the process.
PJW: For the 2009 centenary Monaco Yacht Club commission, what was the main catalyst for the commission?
JV: I got introduced to Bernard D’Alessandri, the Director of the Monaco Yacht Club, in 2008, following a collaboration with Sir Jackie Stewart on a triptych of paintings, which were unveiled at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco just days before the Grand Prix. Bernard mentioned that the Club had plans to celebrate the centenary of their world-famous yacht, Tuiga, and asked if I would consider creating a painting as a fitting tribute to the yacht's Scottish provenance. I spent a few days at the Club and on the yacht and a whole series of paintings evolved, so the Club staged an entire exhibition as an unusual way of celebrating the yacht’s centenary.
PJW: Why did you describe the 9-month studio project as the most difficult you had ever done?
JV: I was totally out of my comfort zone – I mean, I’m not a marine painter and had never even done any sailing. I rarely agree to do commissions because working to someone else’s brief can be a nightmare but, here, the Club said I could do what I wanted, whatever came to mind after spending some time at the Club and on the yacht. I didn’t have a muse or girlfriend at the time, so I had to work with a professional model, hired in for the job, and I just wasn’t used to that. I usually paint people that I know very well, if not intimately, and it was hard to get straight into the rapport that you need for the best results but we just had to get on with it as we only had four days for the preparatory work. It was quite stressful but I did enjoy it too – an amazing opportunity, made even more special by the late John Coombes, lending us two of his gorgeous vintage cars for the shoot. Sir Jackie had, as ever, stepped in when I mentioned to him that I needed help with sourcing the right cars for my ideas and at short notice – 24 hours later, I got a call from John Coombes, offering to loan his cars to us and it was quite a sight, seeing him arrive on the quayside in his 1930s Bugatti. It was such a privilege to meet him.
PJW: Were your subject matter people you intimately knew? Where did you find the characters?
JV: No, my characters are almost always fictional and the scenes entirely made up from my imagination. The ideas for the various story-lines in the exhibition just evolved from spending some time at the Club and on the yacht. It’s the most gorgeous yacht, built in 1909, and the intimate areas below deck just got me thinking of what might go on when a mixed crew are off sailing together. Other ideas came from observing the Monaco “scene” around the Club. It’s very glamorous, gorgeous, and you know there is always a party happening somewhere close by
PJW: Where are you currently based?
JV: Good question! I feel a little stretched at the moment as I’m moving house but currently I’m in London where my gallery is based. I’m in Nice as often as I can be; I find the climate, the light and the people-watching there such a pleasure and very inspiring. I’d like to think I’m following in the footsteps of other Scottish artists who discovered the French Riviera and I can certainly vouch for the appeal. Ultimately, perhaps it’s the light down there – such a counterpoint to the grey days spent in London or Scotland. Having said that, I’ll always keep a home in Scotland too.
PJW: Which studios do you currently work from?
JV: I’ve always set up a studio space at home and I’m lucky enough to have been able to do this in London, Scotland and Nice. So I’m able to paint wherever I am. I’ve tried working from a separate studio space but it just doesn’t work for me. I like to be able to work at odd hours and sporadically, and having a studio space at home makes this possible.
PJW: Where is your studio in the South of France? Will you still retain it for future work?
JV: It’s in Nice, part of my apartment there – I love it. Nice has a glamour to it that is underpinned with a slightly sleazy underbelly, if you look for it, and this leads to a rich seam of inspiration for me. Yes, I think I’ll always keep a studio there.
PJW: Where do you plan to move from London?
JV: I’m not sure yet.
PJW: What’s your next project or painting challenge?
JV: I’m working on a very exciting collaboration with the film score composer and conductor, Ennio Morricone. We’re working on ideas of how to combine my imagery with his music and I’m creating some new pieces with this in mind. I’d also like to paint a portrait of Ennio – he’s a genius and I adore his work. I have a vision of exactly how I want to paint him and we’re trying to work out when and where at the moment.
ON ART AND ARTISTS
PJW: Which artists and genres have most influenced you and which do you most admire, pay reference to, like, inform of your work?
JV: I grew up looking at the work of the Glasgow Boys and The Scottish Colourists. I used to visit my local gallery and museum in Kirkcaldy as they have a great permanent collection and a free admission policy. I have Kirkcaldy Museum and Kelvingrove Art Gallery to thank for my free education. I looked to them but also to earlier artists, Caravaggio, some of the Dutch 17th-century painters for their use of light and shadow to create drama and narrative. My style evolved from looking at all these artists and when I finally found my subject, it all clicked into place.
PJW: Who are your favourite artists?
JV: Francis Bacon, Vincent van Gogh and Lucian Freud.
PJW: Who are your real heroes?
JV: Francis Bacon and Leonard Cohen. I think the word “genius” is used a lot nowadays but these two are what I think of when I hear it.
PJW: Who and what have been the key influences of your life not already documented?
JV: I think pretty much all the areas of my interest and influences have been documented in one way or another over the years but, in terms of subject matter, my drive to create stories comes from my fascination with women, with the power of attraction and all the good and bad that comes from that. Of the people who have influenced me, I’d say that the late art critic and writer, W Gordon Smith, had the greatest impact in that he encouraged me to carry one at a time when I was ready to give up.
PJW: What reference points in particular influence your work and experience for your commission for the Monaco Yacht Club?
JV: See my previous answer about this project.
PJW: Where did the imagery for your work in the South of France derive? Were these people you actually knew and know now?
JV: Aside from the Tuiga project, the ideas and imagery in the paintings I’ve created in the South of France have been entirely inspired by the hours spent people-watching and enjoying the new sights, colours and light down there. The people in my paintings are usually friends or lovers as I find it easiest to work with people I know well.
PJW: What is your view on British Art today?
JV: Most contemporary or so-called cutting edge work leaves me cold and I have no time for conceptual work as, for me, I love to see labour and craft and it’s missing here. That’s why my heroes are from the older generation of painters: Bacon and Freud.
PJW: Do you feel very much apart from it?
JV: I’m not part of the art world either in social terms or in career terms but that’s very probably a blessing.
PJW: What is your current criticism of the art establishment today?
JV: I often get in trouble with my thoughts on this subject so I’d rather not answer this question.
PJW: Do you find an OBE gives you a different type of access to the art establishment – or is that now irrelevant?
JV: It was an honour to receive the OBE but it’s not relevant to my career or my social or professional life in any way. I can say, however, that taking my parents with me to Buckingham Palace on the day I received the OBE was very special – they couldn’t stop crying and it really touched me that I’d made them so proud.
PJW: Is it easier to negotiate the art world with an OBE or does it simply widen your world and enable you to peruse the situation more comprehensively?
JV: I’ve never tried nor needed to negotiate the art world, thankfully, so getting the OBE had no impact on my working life.
PJW: To what extent do you consider exhibiting your work The Weight between 2011-2013 changed perception of criticism of your work?
JV: I think it was a gesture of sorts but not an indication of any profound change in view about my work. Politics aside, it was a great honour to have my self-portrait hanging at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh when it re-opened in 2011, and for this to have happened within my father’s lifetime made it all the more special.
PJW: To what extent have boundaries began to break down now that you have an exhibition at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery?
JV: I think this is more to do with Kelvingrove’s inclusive spirit and ethos rather than any indication of a broader acceptance of my work.
ON THE SOUTH OF FRANCE
PJW: Where are the works now?
JV: They are in private collections across the world.
PJW: Where did you paint the works and where is the location of studio?
JV: My South of France works were all painted in my studio in Nice and inspired by the immediate area, Monaco and further along the Riviera.
PJW: To what extent do you live or act out the lives of your paintings? Or are they, to a large extent, reactions to things seen, experienced and done?
JV: The themes in my painting are a mixture of my own personal experiences, observations and/or fantasies.
PJW: What would you describe the highpoint and low points of your career?
JV: I’m hugely lucky to have had no low points, per se, in my career, other than having to ignore the sometimes oddly vicious criticism that I’ve encountered.
High points include, at the outset, having my work accepted, hung and sold at the Summer Exhibition at the RSA in Edinburgh in 1989, being featured on the South Bank Show in 2003, receiving an OBE and, most recently, the opening of my Retrospective at Kelvingrove. High points to come, will include working with Ennio Morricone, a hero of mine.
PJW: Who nominated you to paint Zara Phillips for Sport Relief?
JV: I understand that Zara herself requested that I be considered as one of the artists who might create a portrait of her for Sports Relief. Hearing that my potential sporting icon was Zara and that she had asked whether I might paint her, made me want to undertake this project, which otherwise usually would have been way out of my comfort zone – I’m not a portrait artist.
PJW: How did you find perception of you has changed over the years and as a result of such commissions?
JV: No idea – perhaps it has just increased awareness and raised my profile?
PJW: Has fame, wealth and “acceptability” brought you what you wished?
JV: I never imagined I’d be able to have the life I now have so there was no anticipation from me as to what I might wish for. I do, however, feel very lucky to be able to continue to do what I love doing and that I’ve made a pretty decent living out of it.
PJW: Where lies the future from here?
PJW: What does it mean to be returning back to Scotland to live?
JV: I’ve never not had a home in Scotland but I just envisage I’ll be spending more time there from next year. Many of my friends and my family are based there so I’ve never been away from Scotland for any length of time. There is just a lovely feeling whenever I return, I know the people and it feels like home.
PJW: How does it feel to be on home turf?
JV: It feels great – I’m so pleased to have my exhibition in Glasgow.
PJW: Will you still be retaining your links with the South of France?
PJW: Through your retrospective and journey through art, how do you feel the establishment and public now view your work?
JV: I’m not sure how to answer that one … I mean if you like my work, then that’s great.
© Pippa Jane Wielgos
Photograph : Jack Vettriano, courtesy of Fredi Margarine
Published : "The Riviera Reporter", 30 October 2013.
Whether you like or abhor his work, Jack Vettriano (neé Jack Hoggan), the Fife-born self-taught Scottish painter, is one of the UK’s most popular, successful, living and profitable painters.
The licensing and distribution of his images has resulted in the sales of more than three million posters and cards worldwide, and his royalties bring in no less than £500,000 a year.
His 1992 iconic image "The Singing Butler" became a best-selling image in Britain, achieving 20 million copies sold but, later that same year when Vettriano submitted it for inclusion in the Royal Academy summer show, it was rejected.
When it was sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 2004 for £744,500, it achieved a record for a painting by a Scottish artist.
In 2004 Vettriano was also awarded an OBE for services to the visual arts and was the subject of a South Bank Show documentary called "Jack Vettriano: The People’s Painter".
His international fan-base also includes collectors such as Sir Tim Rice, Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Jackie Stewart, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, Jack Nicholson and Madonna.
Not limiting himself solely to commerce, in 2008 Vettriano was asked to paint a portrait of the Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Phillips, for the charity Sport Relief (www.sportrelief.com). The 20 x 24-inch oil on canvas sold at Bonhams for £36,000.
His major centenary commission for the Monaco Yacht Club, Homage à Tuiga, came about in 2008 after he produced "Tension, Timing and Triumph", a triptych of paintings depicting racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart's third victory at Monaco in 1971.
The series of ten "Homage à Tuiga" paintings, including Sunshine and Champagne were inspired by the Clyde-built yacht Tuiga, built by William Fife 100 years ago for Duke of Medinacelli, who wanted a boat similar to his friend, Spanish King Alphonse XIII, so that the two 15-metre vessels could race together.
Speaking in 2009 to BBC Scotland, Vettriano described the commission, which took him nine months to paint in his South of France studio, as the “most difficult project” he had taken on in his career.
Vettriano’s work, based on film-noir recreations of popular iconography, has courted much art critical controversy in the UK establishment art world throughout his 20 years as a painter; critics claiming that it’s more akin to “biscuit tin” art or, as he's been described, "a purveyor of badly conceived soft porn”, lacking real skill and accomplishment despite its commercial success.
Vettriano recently sold his London home for £2 million, which included the give-away of a free £300,000 original painting, titled "Suddenly Last Summer" (a depiction of a former female lover), which he hung over the boiler room door.
The 62-year old artist is considering relocating to Edinburgh this winter. He told the Herald Scotland that he was hoping to find somewhere “you didn’t have to walk one mile to buy a nail”.
He has a studio in London, Scotland and Nice and tells me, “I’m in Nice as often as I can be. I find the climate, the people-watching there and the light such a pleasure and very inspiring. Nice has a glamour to it that is underpinned with a slightly sleazy underbelly, if you look for it, and this leads to a rich seam of inspiration for me. I think I’ll always keep a studio there.”
Vettriano studied works at Kirkcaldy and the Kelvingrove art galleries.
He was quoted as saying, “I am not a great fan of Brit Art because it lacks craft. It’s astonishing, though, how an unmade bed or a shark in formaldehyde does take on a completely different effect when it is placed in the middle of a room.”
Vettriano explains, “I have no time for conceptual work as, for me, I love to see labour and craft, and it’s missing here. That’s why my heroes are from the older generation of painters: Bacon and Freud.”
Between 2011-2013 his self-portrait work "The Weight" was shown at the National Portrait Galleries of Scotland as part of their major re-opening in acknowledgement to Vettriano being a “symbolic artist in Scottish history” and a “major contemporary artist”.
This, for Vettriano, a miner’s son from Methil (Fife) who has had to fight for the acceptability of his work, must be some modest measure of success.
Still he tells me, “I’m not part of the art world either in social terms or in career terms, but that’s very probably a blessing.”
Vettriano's 20-year career is currently encapsulated in a retrospective of a hundred paintings, including "The Singing Butler", "Dance Me To The End Of Love" and "The Weight", at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (Glasgow), backed by The Art Fund.
The block-buster level of visitor interest attracted no less than 30,000 visitors in the four days of its opening, and is expected to break attendance records for the gallery.
"Jack Vettriano: A Retrospective" runs until Sunday February 23rd, 2014.
© Pippa Jane Wielgos
Photograph : Jack Vettriano, courtesy of Fredi Margarine
Published : "The Riviera Reporter", 30 October 2013.