The return of Vettriano

Most will already be familiar with the work of Jack Vettriano, painter of “The Singing Butler,” which sold at a Sotheby’s auction five years ago for £744,500. Many will not know that he painted that image twelve years before that, only to have its submission rejected by the curators of the Royal Academy summer show.

The paintings that have made Vettriano’s name have taken inspiration largely from his nostalgia for his youth, and his ideas of romance. His dramatic scenes, reminiscent of 1940s and 50s film noir cinema, are recognisable by their atmospheric lighting and characteristically implied yet ambiguous narrative. “The Singing Butler” and others of his most famous works, “Bill Boy,” “Mad Dogs,” “Bluebird at Bonneville,” and “Dance me to the End of Love,” among countless others, are still earning him royalties reported to be £500,000 a year through eternal print-runs of cards and posters. Many have reached, or perhaps exceeded, the fame of such memorable pieces as Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Rene Magritte’s “The Son of Man,” or Klimt’s “The Kiss”.

That is some success for the Fife-born artist who dropped out of school at 16 to become an apprentice mining engineer, and who took up painting simply as a hobby in his twenties. It was only in the 1970s, after his girlfriend bought him a set of watercolours for his 21st birthday, that Vettriano really began to pursue his new-found talent. His first substantial effort was a pastiche of Monet’s “Poppy Fields,” publicly exhibited under the name “Jack Hoggan,” a staggering 14 years after his girlfriend’s gift. In 1988 Jack Hoggan began to make his real entry into the art scene of Britain, submitting two canvases for the Royal Scottish Academy annual show. Only then did he assume the name “Vettriano,” adding an ‘a’ to his mother’s maiden name, becoming the man he has been known as ever since.

The Jack Vettriano of today is a very different man from the Jack Hoggan of old, the boyish mining apprentice as whom he started out. Every year there is another large-scale Vettriano calendar, and incalculable posters and postcards taken to print, bearing glossy replicas of his earliest as well as most recent works. People are willing to pay hundreds for a mere print, if it just reproduces Vettriano’s iconic impressions. His work is, quite simply, enchanting; he has consequently become a household name.

Putting aside Vettriano’s earlier successes, his more recent ones have been no less thriving, despite accruing considerably less publicity. His annual tradition of letting loose a set of limited edition signed prints has waned over the last four years, no such pieces obtainable at all between 2004 and 2007. Which makes his newest exploits all the more stirring. Last year, and not a moment too soon, Jack Vettriano issued the limited edition prints we have been waiting for.

The White Room Gallery in Leamington is currently exhibiting a number of these prints in its space above HM Graphics, in the heart of the town centre on Regent Street. As the name of the venue suggests, it is no more than a white-walled room. But it is such simplicity that lends itself so well to small collections of this sort. It is an ideal space for housing minor exhibitions, as it has done for some of the greatest British artists of the twentieth century, as well as much up-and-coming talent. The current display is a model of the gallery’s previous work, but the wide-renown that this particular artist already enjoys is bound to draw an unprecedented interest to the humble venue.

The exhibition shows Vettriano working with a sexier streak than in previous years. He has removed the ties, hats and gloves from the previously suited gentlemen and elegantly-attired, high-heeled ladies. Women are no longer coolly demure, but provocatively posed in basques and suspenders (they nevertheless tend to keep their heels firmly on). The 2008 limited edition prints bear titles including “Game On” (a man undressing a woman who is backed up against a wall), “His Favourite Girl” (in which the viewer can only just glimpse male hands rested on the arms of a chair behind the rear view of the woman who is turned towards him) and “Private Dance” (needing no further description). Let it be said that not all of the Scot’s work on display is quite as shady. “Long Time Gone” retains much of the old romance, with its enchanting cohesion of glamorous experience and youthful naivety.

Vettriano has also taken a new interest in other types of games – competitive and leisurely sports. “Blades” depicts a woman skating along a boulevard. The expression here is not one of lust, the thrill of the chase, but celebrates the individual’s freedom in his or her own power, speed and agility. Further along in the exhibition there is a triptych painted by Vettriano last year in collaboration with Sir Jackie Stuart, the former Formula 1 three-time World Championship winner. Three images have been produced, entitled “Timing,” “Tension” and “Triumph,” which tell the story of Stuart’s 1971 victory in Monaco. At The White Room Gallery, limited edition prints of the triptych are available as a set, signed by both the artist and his subject.

In Vettriano’s new projects, we see that sport and romance align for him, both incorporating the same compelling games of risk and danger. It is illuminating to observe how the opposing scenes inside and outside, individuals and couples, clothed and unclothed, cohesion and rivalry come to signify similar thoughts, and can be articulated by the same brush.

See Vettriano’s work at: The White Room Gallery, 111 Regent Street, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. CV32 4NU. Tel: 01926 888086


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