Jack Vettriano: The poster boy of popular art

He's been accused of plagiarism, painting by numbers and shameless commercialism, yet Jack Vettriano has still managed to produce the most recognisable, and popular, art work of the last 20 years with The Singing Butler. It hasn't made him happy, though, he tells Alice Jones
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Caravaggio, Degas, Monet, Manet, Lautrec, Van Gogh, Dali, Singer Sargent... You name them, I've painted them. Monet's Poppy Field? I can do it in my bloody sleep. I've seduced a few women with that." Jack Vettriano is recalling his early brushes with painting. Back then he was plain old Jack Hoggan, the miner's son, knocking off copies of great works from library books in his Kirkcaldy bedroom to impress the ladies. With time, the distinctive, self-made Vettriano style emerged. "Caravaggio's quite difficult. The Impressionists not so much, their style is very breezy," he continues. "I say to people that what happened then was a kind of alchemy. You put all of them in a pot, stir it up, pour it out and it's Jack."

So here I am, with Jack, the copycat amateur turned multi-millionaire artist and man who sold a million mouse mats (and tea caddies and umbrellas and coasters and notelets etc.) These days he impresses more than just the Kirkcaldy gals. His celebrity collectors include Jack Nicholson, Terence Conran and Tim Rice, who pay anything from £40,000 for a small work to hundreds of thousands for a major canvas at auction. Jack Vettriano (OBE) is now not only a household name, but a fixture, thanks mainly to The Singing Butler, his painting of an elegant couple waltzing on a blustery beach as two windswept servants look on. You know the one; it's probably hanging in your mother-in-law's kitchen, or propped on your mantelpiece somewhere. It is, simply put, one of the most popular works of art of all time, regularly outselling Monet and Van Gogh in the poster shops. It's also, as a result, one of the most vilified by critics, who like to dismiss it as being on a par with those pictures of snooker-playing dogs you find in pubs.

Whether you think it's painting by numbers or not, the numbers involved add up to something extraordinary. Having been rejected by the Royal Scottish Academy for its summer exhibition, the canvas first sold privately in 1991 for £3000. In 2004, it sold at auction for £744,800, breaking the record for any Scottish painting, and indeed for any painting by any artist ever sold in Scotland. By that time it had already sold over a million posters and today it still brings in royalties of half a million pounds a year, or enough cash for Vettriano to buy a horse and name it The Singing Butler. Is it still racing? "The bloody thing fell on the flat and had to be destroyed."

The story of the painting, though, continues to run and run. Five years ago, The Daily Record found that the four figures could be traced directly back to the £16.99 Illustrators' Figure Reference Manual. The art world sharpened its scalpels. "I did with that book what you were supposed to do. It's meant for people who don't have access to models, as an aid for artists," says Vettriano. "I was accused of plagiarism. Bloody bastards." He doesn't think he did anything wrong and besides, he says, when they were clearing Francis Bacon's studio after his death they found a page from the same book. "He couldn't have got the page without buying the book. So if it's good enough for Bacon, it's good enough for me." His heart must have sunk a bit, though, when he saw the tabloid exposé? "It did. I was always aware that I could be found out. But as the years went by I thought, so what? If you look at that book, you see the couple dancing and you think, 'it's astonishing that he managed to construct that image'. The butler was actually a vicar in the book and the maid didn't have an umbrella. I put them all together. That deserves a bit of applause. Christ, what an imagination!" So unrepentant is he that he recently contacted the model from the manual – a struggling actress called Orla Brady, now better known as one of BBC's Mistresses – for a follow-up. "I sent her a copy of the book signed and I thought it would be lovely to paint her again. She didn't want to do it."

And so the Butler sings on, though Vettriano wishes he'd pipe down occasionally. "It's my signature piece, whether I like it or not," he sighs. "I don't want to be remembered as the guy who did The Singing Butler, the guy who paints people in love on the beach. There's a part of me that's romantic, but somehow a sleazy bar in Soho with lapdancers seems to me to be a far better place to be." As a person, or as a painter? "As a person, and subsequently it comes out in the paintings." Indeed it does. The vast majority of Vettriano's paintings – the ones you won't find on a biscuit tin but which are, according to the artist, "always the first to sell" – throb with sex. It probably stems back to those adolescent days seducing women with his mock Monets. Less beaches and ballroom than hotels and whores, it's a nocturnal world of anonymous rooms and illicit assignations which cast the viewer as voyeur. The palette is brothel reds and noir, the lighting bedside. Stockings, suspenders and scarlet nails for the women, loosened bow-ties, shirt sleeves and smoking cigarettes for the men.

In person, Vettriano cuts a similarly louche figure, which is no surprise since all those men are modelled on him. When I arrive at his new gallery, he's out on the street, sucking intensely on a roll-up cigarette, scowling through his distinctive tortoiseshell glasses. Artfully unkempt, he's dressed in the lightly sleazy uniform of the Soho Boho – grey mesh sweater, designer jeans and a chunky silver necklace. The latest addition to his tortured-artist look is a tattoo. He rolls up a sleeve to show me the design, a pierced heart to match the name and logo of his new gallery, Heartbreak. The scroll underneath has been left blank, "for the woman I fall for", and has yet to find, outside of oil paints and canvas. "I live in a world of heartbreak," he mumbles through a fog of musky aftershave and stubble. "I just seem to be more creative when I'm in some kind of emotional distress." Vettriano, you learn quickly, likes drama. I think that all that posing as a conflicted lothario for his paintings might have got to him – and he has the good humour to agree. "I'm aware that I'm being a bit dramatic and mysterious," he smiles, ruefully. "I can't bloody help it sometimes."

Anyway, Heartbreak, both body art and building, represents something of a fresh start for the 58-year-old artist, who has had a more than usually torrid few years. Not long after the copycat claims, he split from the Portland Gallery who represented him for 15 years, through the high point of his million-grossing sales. In 2008 The Art Group, responsible for all those posters, went into liquidation, resulting in 18 months of legal wrangles. And in April this year, seven of 10 paintings put up for sale at Sotheby's failed to sell. His latest self-portrait shows him slumped on his bed, grey-flecked head bowed; it's titled The Weight. "It's been four years of soul-searching – nicotine, alcohol, anti-depressants, temazepam," confirms Vettriano.

But now here he is, with a brand new six-floor gallery in an elegant townhouse in London's Mayfair. Heartbreak is the new pulsing heart of the Vettriano empire – exhibition space, publishing house and, of course, gift shop. He says he was courted by several galleries, but wanted to take "complete control" of his career, with a little help from Nathalie Martin from the Portland as his manager. "From now on a third party will not be able to say to me, 'can you tone this down a bit?'" Before, he'd approve reproductions over the phone, now it's all done in-house. "I get a bit of stick for my reproductions, but what would Monet have done? I suspect he'd say, 'yeah, let's do it!'. Monet didn't have the technology to reproduce works. Why should somebody have to pay £40,000 for an original? Why should you not be able to give them pleasure for £10? The people who criticise me for reproducing work are the people whose work wouldn't sell. There's a kind of envy there."

The exhibition, Days of Wine and Roses, is his first in London for four years and attracted 48,000 visitors when it had a five-week run in Kirkcaldy in Spring. It includes the usual steamy clinches – half-dressed sirens sinking their spike heels into men's shoulders – and more contemplative portraits, including a demure woman in cloche hat and pearls. "She was a lover of mine and still is a very dear friend. Tim Rice said to me, 'that's the best painting you've ever done'." Other women sit alone in restaurants or look wistfully out of windows. "They're hurting. I am drawn more to people who hurt, who break, than the lucky people." More than the dancers on the beach? "Yeah. I like to paint people who are needy. When you're needy, you make mistakes." Something for everyone, then. "You do get people who say, 'I'll get this one to display publicly, and this one to put up in the bedroom'. That sort of thing," murmurs Vettriano.

They are all very decorative but don't bear too much scrutiny. Legs bend at funny angles, hands look as though they're carved from wood, faces are barely drawn. Is he aware of his flaws as a painter? "I get a bit too close to them. I don't want my dealer to say, 'hmmm... that neck looks too long'. I want her to say, 'excellent, we'll sell that tomorrow'." He's not great with criticism, though he has endured an awful lot of it, accused of everything from colouring-in to peddling soft porn. "That's not criticism, that's a thug standing there, hitting you with a baseball bat."

He's "slowed down" recently, but still produces an astonishing 30 works a year. Each painting takes around three days (which, when you think of the prices they command, puts his salary on a par with that of a Premiership footballer). He works from photographs – "I can't paint from my head" – which, for the most part, he snaps himself on a "little bitty Kodak", like stills from some fantasy film. He always poses as the man – "because I'm cheap and I'm available. I don't paint myself because I get off on it" – while a tight-knit gaggle of former lovers/ muses play the women. "I say to models, 'I'm not doing a portrait of you. I'm not going to spend days trying to get your face right, because all you are is a character in a painting'." How do they feel about posing as prostitutes, as in Night Calls? "It's just like acting, dressing up. That model said, 'I wish you'd painted my face', but I didn't want to. She's anonymous. It's him that's the star."

It's this approach that has seen Vettriano labelled a chauvinist. His women are sexual objects, frequently half naked and vulnerable, always in stockings and stilettoes. He is, by the way, obsessed with women's shoes. They stalk across his canvasses and cram his flat where he displays them fetishistically on pedestals and in glass-fronted cabinets. "When I saw you walk up in those," he gestures at my (flat) ballet shoes, "I thought, hmmm." What on earth do you mean? "Well, ummm, I have been interviewed by journalists who come along all Vettrianoed up. But perhaps they've got a different agenda." I'd say so, Jack.

His obsession with vintage glamour harks back to his childhood when he'd watch women getting dolled up to go to local nightspots. He left school at 16, spent the summer working as a bingo caller and served a brief apprenticeship in the local Methilhill pit, though in truth it was more "smoking and skiving" than hewing and heaving. When he was 21, his girlfriend gave him a box of paints. The bug took hold and 15 years later he woke up and decided to become a painter. "Like Gauguin. He dumped his wife and children because he was driven." Aged 36, he left his job in educational research – "I was destined for lower-middle management" – left his wife of eight years, Gail, and stepdaughter, and escaped to Edinburgh. There, he adopted his mother's maiden name, gave away his suits to a neighbour and started dressing as an Edwardian dandy – "brogues, braces, long hair; the only thing missing was the cane." He applied to the University of Edinburgh to study Fine Art, but his portfolio was rejected.

So he kept working, copying the masters, lifting poses from Littlewoods catalogues and putting them against art deco backgrounds. In 1989 he submitted two paintings to the RSA summer exhibition. Gatecrashing opening night, Vettriano saw that they had already been snapped up – one for £180, one for £220. He immediately had three galleries vying to represent him but, savvy at 39 years old, he bargained them hard. "I don't know where I got the balls to do that," he says. "But in the first year I made more than I'd ever made working."

He must be fabulously wealthy. "I don't do it for the money, but you can't help equate your success with money, to a point," he admits. "But I've never been keen on just looking at figures in a bank account. Why have a million quid in the bank when you could have a fabulous place in Nice?" Which he does have, alongside homes in Knightsbridge and Kirkcaldy, where he lives in the panelled boardroom of an old linoleum factory. His indulgence is vintage furniture and objets d'art; most recently he bought a pair of stage lights from Alfies Antique Market in Marylebone. He also buys art but gets bored quickly and sells it on. If he could own any work it would be Bacon's triptych of his dead lover, George Dyer.

In general, he keeps his distance from the arty set. "When I moved to London, somebody said, 'you're a painter! You have to live in Notting Hill'. I said, 'thanks for telling me, I'll live in Knightsbridge'. I don't know how the Impressionists sat at night getting pissed, talking about art. Besides, there's so much bile and envy in that world that I just feel very uncomfortable about spending time with artists." That said, he met Lucian Freud in The Wolseley recently and couldn't help telling him how much he admired his work. "He said, 'thanks very much'. He didn't say he liked my work, but I'll forgive him for that."

Acceptance by the art world continues to elude Vettriano. Only two of his paintings are on public display, both donated by the artist to the Kirkcaldy gallery. He's currently organising a retrospective which he would love to hold in the Scottish National Gallery. "If I'm honest I would very much like that and I think the people of Scotland would like that. All I would say is that they have a budget every year to buy new work on behalf of the people of Scotland, on behalf of the tax payers. My feeling is that sometimes they don't do that, they buy it for themselves," he says. "When your star shines too brightly, there are people out there that would like to extinguish it." If he could trade his wealth and popularity for the establishment's embrace, would he? "No, I've got no desire to be in the basement, in a storage room."

So what next? He tells me about an idea he's had for a painting – "of life in the future where you don't have to go out or anything, you just put on this headset and you get all the pleasure you want." Sounds pretty lonely, but then Vettriano does seem pretty lonely. Does he ever feel like settling down, filling in that tattoo, being happy like those dancers on the beach? He has taken up ballroom dancing ("first lesson tonight!") and there is "somebody who is very good for me just now. She's very good at getting me to my easel, stimulating my senses. But I've always been fearful of domestic bliss getting in the way of heartbreak." The truth is, he likes playing Jack Vettriano, the brooding man in the dimly lit room, a bit too much to give up on the role just yet. And he's the first to admit as much. "You do become what you paint. I've got this warped notion that love will destroy my creativity, which is nonsense frankly. I've always been prepared for people to say, 'get a life for Christ's sake! Stop playing the bloody tortured artist'. But it's what works best for me – being tortured."

Days of Wine and Roses, Heartbreak, 17 Bulstrode St, London W1 (www.heart-break.co.uk) to 31 October