Thursday, 15 May 2008

The online Vettriano

The Times, May 13, 2008

After falling out last year with the art dealer who helped to make him rich, Jack Vettriano, once dubbed “the people's painter”, has set up a website to sell his work.

Vettriano tells prospective buyers who visit his site that they will be able to find “images of paintings that are for sale in between exhibitions”. Unfortunately for those in the market for originals - which can sell for upwards of £300,000 - says that there are “currently no paintings available for purchase”.

Vettriano's artworks - originals and reproductions - have proved very popular, with galleries and art shops ringing with his sales for the better part of two decades. In 1993 he established a lucrative relationship with Tom Hewlett, an art dealer at the Portland Gallery in London. He profited from the sales of canvases but he made his fortune from the rights to his works, which have been used around the world on postcards, posters and gifts.

After a long period of creative inactivity, the partnership with the gallery was dissolved in July last year, amid rumours that he had failed to produce pictures for a promised exhibition.

To scotch that tittle-tattle, the artist's website features several unseen works. One of these, Blades, was apparently painted recently and, according to the site, is “part of series of paintings on a French Riviera theme” that Vettriano is working on.

“When Jack next has an exhibition, the images in his next show, wherever that might be, will be displayed,” said Isabelle Delacroix, who is helping the painter with his business. “In principle, if the paintings haven't been pre-placed with private collectors and they are available, there will certainly be an image and details on the site.”

Mr Hewlett is not involved in the website, and was unaware that it had gone “live”.

Other unseen works in the virtual gallery include Showgirl, which Vettriano painted in 1997, and the artwork for a CD cover, produced by the band Saint Jude's Infirmary, who recorded a song Goodbye Jack Vettriano.

Though none of these works is for sale, potential buyers can bid for Olympia, his recently completed portrait of Zara Phillips, which was commissioned for the charity Sport Relief. Olympia will be sold, along with works by Peter Blake, Gerald Scarfe and Stella Vine, at a fundraising auction in London this year.

Born Jack Hoggan, in St Andrews, Vettriano was brought up in Methil and began his career as a mining engineer, and he took up art in his spare time after being given a paint box by a girlfriend. He later adopted the name Vettriano from his mother's family, because he thought that it sounded more fitting for an artist. For admirers, his curious and often uncomfortable narrative scenes of human life have attracted comparison with the American figurative painter Edward Hopper.

In 2003 Vettriano was made an OBE for services to the visual arts and he has an honorary doctorate from St Andrews University. His celebrity buyers include Jack Nicholson, SirAlex Ferguson, Robbie Williams and Raymond Blanc.

Others remained unimpressed. In 2005 critics seized on the revelation that characters in some of Vettriano's best-known pictures appeared to have been copied from a teach-yourself painting manual. And neither Tate Gallery nor the National Galleries of Scotland has ever bought his work, with only one public collection in the UK displaying his paintings - and even those were a gift by the artist to his local gallery in Kirkcaldy.

Friends of Vettriano say that he is hurt by this lack of “official” recognition, but in a statement yesterday the painter said that he remained aloof from the argument. “I'm often dragged into the debate about whether or not my work should be shown in public collections, and while I feel that this is for others to decide I'm delighted that fans of my paintings will now be able to see a body of work of which I'm very proud. I've had some very flattering approaches but I've no plans to join another gallery just yet,” he said.

Even Vettriano's worst enemies acknowledge his unfailing instinct for publicity. In 2004 ITV's flagship arts programme, The South Bank Show, profiled him in a documentary entitled The People's Painter. Within a month The Singing Butler, his best-known work, which was owned by one of his friends, was sold at auction for £750,000, a record price for a living Scottish artist.

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