Vladimir Tretchikoff

Painterly Barbara Cartland whose works - luridly colourful and defiantly popular - defined an era

Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff, artist: born Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan 13 December 1913; married 1935 Natalie Telpregoff (one daughter); died Cape Town, South Africa 26 August 2006.

In life as in art, the word that best described Vladimir Tretchikoff was "colourful". He was famous for painting pictures which were repeatedly reprinted in the 1960s and 1970s and which hung on the wall of many a lower-middle-class house in Britain, usually next to a set of flying ducks.

The most famous of these prints - one that allegedly sold over five million copies - was Chinese Girl, widely known as the Green Lady for its odd and lurid colouring. Into his eighties, the tiny Russian, 5ft 3in, drove a vast Cadillac which he was constantly crashing. "At heart I am a Bohemian but I prefer to live like a capitalist," he said. "I'd rather drive a Cadillac than ride a bicycle." The car, to no one's great surprise, was pink.

Although his work made him a very rich man - the second richest artist after Picasso, by his own modest estimation - Tretchikoff claimed to be hurt by the scorn in which it was held by the cultural mainstream. One critic described Chinese Girl as "arguably the most unpleasant work of art to be published in the 20th century". This was snobbish. A more pragmatic view was that taken by Andy Warhol: "It has to be good," Warhol said. "If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it."

Pictures like Tretchikoff's Balinese Girl, Weeping Rose and Dying Swan brought a touch of the exotic to the post-war world. "People like to have colour in their lives," the artist reasoned. "Especially women, whom I have known to be moved to tears by colour alone."

Tretchikoff was a painterly Barbara Cartland, and his life story strongly resembled the plot of one of her novels. In a highly coloured autobiography, Pigeon's Luck (1973), Vladimir Tretchikoff claimed to have been born in Siberia to a family of landowners ruined by the revolution. By the 1920s, they were living in the Russian city of Harbin in what was then Manchuria.

At the age of 11, Vladimir supplemented his family's meagre income by painting sets at the local opera house, a fact that explains the theatricality of his later work, which seems designed to be seen at a distance. In 1932, Tretchikoff and his brother, Constantine, set off for Paris and art school. When they reached Shanghai, their money ran out. Constantine went on; Vladimir stayed.

This proved a fateful choice. In 1935, Vladimir Tretchikoff met and married a Russian émigrée, Natalie Telpregoff. The pair moved to Singapore, Vladimir working in advertising and then for the British Ministry of Information and painting all the while. Such were colonial tastes that his work acquired a popular following; in 1938, Tretchikoff represented Malaya at the New York World's Fair, hanging alongside Maurice de Vlaminck and Duncan Grant. A daughter, Mimi, was born in the same year.

When the Japanese invaded in 1941, mother and child were evacuated to South Africa. Tretchikoff stayed on, soon starting an affair with one of his models, a Eurasian he nicknamed "Lenka". It was she, rather than Natalie, who became his muse, her face appearing in numerous works including Chinese Girl. In a rare moment of self-irony, Tretchikoff dedicated his autobiography "To my wife, who says that life with me is one moment heaven, the next hell, but mostly purgatory".

Evacuated in 1942 on the ill-fated HMS Giang Bee, Tretchikoff spent three months adrift in the Java Sea before washing up at Serang. (He claimed to have been handed a baby by a distraught woman as the torpedoed Giang Bee went down, ensuring him a place in a lifeboat. Two hundred people drowned in the sinking.) In Batavia, he professed to be a stateless Russian, explaining away his British uniform as a loan. The Japanese rewarded this treachery with three months' solitary confinement. In August 1946, Tretchikoff joined his wife in Cape Town, where he spent the rest of his life.

Once again, colonial taste came to his rescue. Painted in unmixed colours squeezed straight from the tube, Tretchikoff's pictures caught the South African eye. His first two shows, in Cape Town and Johannesburg in 1948, sold 25 canvases for the then sizeable sum of £5,300. Interviewed at the time, the artist noted that critics had warned him "there was nothing new under the sun", but that he had proved them wrong.

In 1950, a local writer, Richard Buncher, published a book about Tretchikoff's work. This was reprinted in London the following year, bringing the Green Lady and her fellows to the attention of the British public. In 1961, more than 200,000 people visited Tretchikoff's first London show which, wise to the ways of marketing, he held at Harrods.

It is easy to sneer at Tretchikoff's pictures, as most critics have done. The artist was equally angry when his work was taken up in the 1990s by postmodern ironists: he refused to allow one of his prints to be put on the cover of a book in praise of kitsch. But works like Dying Swan defined an era more vividly than those of any other single artist. A Tretchikoff had only to appear over Bob Rusk's chimneypiece in Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972) for the audience to know that Rusk was odd; the Green Lady on the wall of Alfie's Ruby in 1966 marked her out as irredeemably modern.

As a maker of cultural artefacts, if not of art, Tretchikoff was a master.

Charles Darwent

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Ashdown Group: Linux Administrator - London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator ...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower