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Arts: Sober, but still sensational

She's been branded an exhibitionist and a drunkard, but Tracey Emin's early paintings reveal a more solemn nature. Michael Glover stumbled across the evidence
It was towards the end of a sun-struck afternoon in a gardener's cottage in the Brecon Beacons, and I was standing in the attic studio of the painter, Robert McDonald. A major retrospective of his work had just closed at the Brecon Museum, and he was showing me a selection from some of the stages of his development: McDonald the young splatter-painter under the jazzy influence of abstract expressionism; McDonald the print- making interpreter of Aboriginal myth; McDonald, the quiet painter of rural scenes somewhat in the tender, naive manner of David Jones or even Dubuffet.

Can you guess who this one's by? he said, pulling something quite different from another portfolio. I couldn't. It was a print of an urban harbour scene, with boats coming and going, executed in graphite and painted over in Gouache or watercolour; vigorous, expressive, fanciful, with great boldness and panache. A very fluid, painterly sort of painting. Its title, written in pencil, said: "Istanbul", and you could easily recognise certain details. The date was 1989.

The painter? Tracey Emin. I told him that this was so different from the Tracey Emin of popular myth; the Tracey Emin who had rolled on drunk during last year's Turner Prize discussion and, with a ferocious wag of her finger, slagged off one and all; the Tracey Emin whose seemingly insatiable appetite for self-promotion had led her to present the most intimate details of her private life as gifts to the nation. Could this painting be by one and the same person?

Then he showed me others fromslightly earlier - small woodcuts and linocuts, all gloom and pessimism, heavily influenced by Klimt, Munch, Kirchner and other German Expressionists; a larger hand-coloured woodcut printed on the linen and stretched between two pieces of crudely carved wood called "The Black Horse". Almost all of them were signed in the same way: "Miss T K Emin". How had he come by them?

In 1984 McDonald was a part-time lecturer at Maidstone College of Art, and Emin was one of his BA Fine Art students. She was the most remarkable student he'd ever taught - energetic, enthusiastic, and with a capacity to produce vast quantities of work. She was producing enormous numbers of prints: woodcuts and linocuts by the hundreds, all bleak monotypes, and many with the same stark and obsessive subject matter as the pieces he was now showing me: the female nude, hunched or curled foetus-like, violated. "There was a powerful obsession with death," he commented. "The females always looked brutalised, sexually agonised. In the red linocut that she produced as a poster for a student show, a skeleton sits beside a hunched female figure, leering, mocking, biding its time. Death always has time to spare. This was the linocut that had hung on the office wall during the years of Noel Machin, the head of Liberal Studies who had liked and encouraged Emin so much. After his death, it was thrown into a bin because his successor didn't value it. Bob McDonald plucked the treasured thing out again.

All these pieces are signed in that same rather prim way: Miss T K Emin. She was by no means prim in her art or her behaviour, though. The area where she did her work was curtained off to prevent visitors being too shocked by her work. Noel Machin organised talent contests every year. Tracey, already the exhibitionist, would be a star performer, stripping and cavorting - the usual art school sort of thing. Machin also encouraged his students to collaborate with poets and musicians. Tracey played a leading role in this too, bringing a jazz group in, performing poetry, collaborating with Billy Childish and the other Medway poets on books and pamphlets. (Childish's name would find its way embroidered on to the fabric of that famous tent, produced for the Minky Manky Show in 1995, along with the names of 1,001 other gloriously exposed former lovers).

After her graduation from Maidstone, McDonald lost touch with Emin for a while. This was during her post-graduate years at the Royal College of Art - it was McDonald who had encouraged her to apply in the first place. She sent him postcards from her travels, but they didn't meet again until the end of the Eighties. By then, she had a studio in south London. When he visited, he found her poverty-stricken and unwell. He noticed a painting in her studio that was quite different from anything he'd seen before, a cityscape of Istanbul. It was surprisingly colourful - she hadn't generally used colour at Maidstone - and almost celebratory in its atmosphere. The mood of her work at Maidstone had been deeply pessimistic. Could he buy it? She was happy to sell. She needed the money. She suggested some modest amount - perhaps pounds 10. He gave her pounds 100 because he recognised its value immediately. But why Istanbul?

In the intervening years, Tracey Emin had been busy renewing her links with her father's side of the family. She and her father, a Turkish Cypriot, hadn't seen much of each other during her childhood. He'd been kept busy servicing another family, and Tracey was mainly brought up by her mother in Margate.

McDonald then showed me the invitation to a show in 1990, the year of the infamous abortion, the subject of one of her confessional videos. It's a modest thing, hand-written, hand-drawn, on long white sheets of paper. Only the cover has an illustration - the simplest of traced outlines. Indicative, perhaps, of her move away from expressive picture-making. This show took place in the crypt of St George's, Bloomsbury, and its title was "The Calling of St Anthony, 1990". Fold it out and you find a long list of hand-written nouns: "Integrity, dignity, humour, teeth, hair, heart, love, temper, grip, white cells, red cells, self-respect, magic, coal, marbles..." Could this mark the beginning of her interest in incorporating text? At the bottom, directly beneath the list, these words are written (a propos of St Anthony, of course): "The patron Saint of all things lost..."

I asked McDonald whether he thought Tracey Emin was herself something of a lost soul; whether her search for attention had somehow caused her to lose her way.

"I didn't like what happened at the Turner Prize-giving, but I don't think that Tracey was entirely to blame for that. The television people must have known she was drunk - you just had to look at her swivelling eyes to see that - and you could therefore say that they put her into a situation where she became a source of comedy. But Tracey is more than just a freak show. I think at heart she's a serious artist."