Jack Vettriano is ‘the most successful and popular Scottish artist in history’. So says the gallery blurb.
His prints are ubiquitous. Who hasn’t seen ‘The Singing Butler’? A couple in evening dress dance on a beach, the sands stretch away to the horizon. Meanwhile a bonneted maid, holding onto her hat whilst chewing some toffee, together with an anonymous, podgy Jeeves stand by. The butler’s umbrella unfurled to shield the lovers from a squally blast. Yes? You must have. It’s everywhere. It’s up at my doctor’s surgery and I stared at it the other morning until the District Nurse called out my name. Sat next to the old woman with the hacking cough. Did she imagine herself in the arms of Valentino, shifting her arthritic body to Les Norman and his Bethnal Green Bambinos as she hawked up yellow flem? Or did she like me wonder what the hell it was all about?
In the public consciousness the image occupies a position akin to Diana the Princess of Wales, the poem about footsteps in the sand and Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’. It is the ‘People’s Picture’. And Vettriano’s success is not limited to mass produced prints. His original works command, as they say in auction circles, high prices. In 2004 the source painting (if you like) of ‘The Singing Butler’ sold for just shy of £750,000. His ‘Bluebird at Bonneville’ was flogged by Sotheby’s for £468,000 in the summer of 2007. Collectors of his works include Jack Nicholson and fellow Scot Sir Alex Ferguson.
Obviously he’s successful. Commercially, at least. Though the art world looks at his work in mild horror. He struggles – and apparently strives – for academic acceptance. So what is the style? Where does it fit? Though it has elements of sentimentality, his work is not kitsch. It’s not genre painting. It might conceivably be surreal if you were to look at it after a night on Skol and a handful of Magic Mushrooms. But no. Where Vettriano succeeds in spades is in that blandest of artistic endeavours – Decorative Art. Something to be bought framed off from the internet, ready for the conservatory. The spare room. A bit of colour to go with the new makeover. We’ve only fifteen minutes to turn this drab semi in Morley into a designer pad for Kelly, Pete and the five kids. ‘Ere, whack up that picture with the posh people dancing on the beach. Sorted. He creates visual muzak. Images piped in with the acoustic instrumentals of ‘Knights in white satin’ and the potpourri. He is listed as in the top ten best selling artists of all time on allposters.com. Up there with Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet. He’s certainly earned more from his art than Van Gogh or Modigliani ever did. But Vettriano produces the sort of images you’d expect to see on the book jacket of a re-issue of Agatha Christie novels. Flat colours on the horizon. A period look to the figures without the aesthetic sensibilities of Simon Palmer. An ill-fitting anachronism. To go back to ‘The Singing Butler’, which made its first appearance in the 1992 exhibition God’s children. This could quite easily be morphed into Inspector Japp trying to protect a crime scene on a beach with an umbrella while Poirot livens up his little grey cells during a swift polka with Captain Hastings.
Vettriano’s work is art as commissioned by Athena. If anyone ever does a painted version of ‘Man holding baby’ it will be Vettriano. Same goes for some woman pulling up her sweaty knickers during a game of tennis – he could re-capture that in oils. Put together a triptych featuring a Mack truck, a psychedelic image of Che Guevara and a skyscraper. Rock Stars of the 20th Century, the Haywood Gallery, numbered prints, a limited edition catalogue, Melvin Bragg tonking on some Vicks Synex is in raptures.
His most characteristic paintings represent a teenage girl’s vision of romance in a Hollywood neverneverland. Some point between the two world wars, with long bodied sports cars in British racing green, a falling handkerchief and some long fella in an evening suit lurching to pick it up. His women are modelled on a young Princess Margaret, fag in hand, polka dot poodle skirts. His men like Leslie Howard and Michael Wilding in heavily tailored suits and trilby hats. You’re so damned attractive, Gladys! I think I’m going to kiss you! You see them time and again. His paintings mass produced into prints are ideal for adding a ‘bit of class’ to the wall of a café in Leeds. A B & B in Ventnor. A dentist’s waiting room in Preston. A doctor’s in Barnsley. I’m sure he’s technically very capable, pulling off some artful impasto and a beautiful licked finish, and his images are soft and fluid, but his subjects are the artistic equivalent of plastic flowers in a vase that someone has plonked on the work’s canteen table. They are incongruous and irrelevant.
Recently he seems to be aiming for some sort of genre credibility. Affairs Of The Heart from 2004 seeks some kind of Sickhertian glimpse into seedy rooms and fractured relationships. But the anachronism remains and Vettriano’s ‘darkness’ comes across as a tawdry post-war pessimism. Storyboards from a forgotten B movie. Interior #3, afternoon, faded beauty with black stockings. Enter Lawrence Harvey, smoking, a frown on his face.
Who is this art for?
Vettriano himself states that he hails from Fife and trained as a mining engineer. He is self taught, using models in books as studies for figures. I get the impression of working class artisan. Burnt umber and a pint of bitter. LS Lowry, easel up on the moors watching the mills in the valley below. So whence the butlers? Dancers in evening dress? The peculiar (and slightly disturbing) Latino men walking across the sands in ‘The Billy Boys’? Where is Vettriano in his work? How does this convey anything? Should we imagine Fergie heading home from the Man U dug out, back to his Cheshire mansion, peeling off the team puffa jacket, a nip of Old Grouse to keep out the cold? He stares at the painting above his fireplace, a tear in his eye for family holidays of yesteryear to Saltcoats. I can remember in my day as a wee lad when we’d shake the soot of Govan from our shoulders and head to the coast but were never allowed onto the beach for all the rich folks dancing…