British war artist admits his double life as the Glasgow mafia's painter

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Top artist has his life threatened by gangsters in lurid underworld deals. It is a scenario that Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin would kill for. But they have been beaten to it by the far less flamboyant figure of Peter Howson.

Howson is best known as Britain's official war artist in Bosnia, where his searing portraits of suffering victims won him acclaim. Yet it emerged yesterday that he has been living on the fringes of violence much closer to home, in the Glasgow underworld.

The artist, who is currently working on a portrait of the House of Lords, admitted he has been leading a double life for 15 years. While completing all his official assignments, he has been painting large numbers of canvases in secrecy and selling them on the black market to Glasgow criminals.

Those canvases were wrapped in thick cloth covers every few weeks, smuggled out of his studio and handed over for around one-tenth of the price paid by his agent in London. In return, ready cash was stuffed into brown envelopes, which he left outside his studio to be pushed under the door.

The illicit deals started 15 years ago when Arthur Thompson Snr, known as Glasgow's godfather, walked into his studio and offered him cash in hand. Thompson died of a heart attack in 1993.

Mr Howson toldScotland on Sunday: "Thompson wasn't interested in art but he knew a lot of people who were and he was interested in the idea that my paintings would be worth much more in a few years time. He was chatty and incredibly friendly. He was a gentleman whose gentleness was endless, as far as I was concerned."

Howson's agent in London, Matthew Flowers, officially controlled the painter's finances, and as Howson was known to be irresponsible with money, he was paid a stipend and forbidden to carry credit cards or sign cheques. Howson saw Thompson as a way of escaping that financial straitjacket. "For a few years it helped me," the artist said. "I found it hugely exciting to be involved in this underworld and to live this secret existence, but the stress of having to paint all the extra paintings has really made my work suffer. I had people coming over every few weeks demanding work that I had to do while completing commissions for my agent too."

Howson's works can fetch over £30,000 on the London art market. His admirers include Madonna and David Bowie. He suffers from a rare form of autism known as Asperger syndrome which affects social and communication skills.

Eventually, as he became more involved in underworld deals, and after Thompson's death, threats of violence ensued, and one of his regular contacts refused to pay for ordered works. Howson said that, when he protested, one buyer threatened him that "I would look like one of my paintings.

"It was after that the death threats started.There was one particularly horrible one that I got, after which I barricaded my door and stayed awake the whole night, just in case. I was getting phone calls all through the night, sometimes as many as seven or eight in one go. I still get them now."

The perpetrators also began targeting his mother and 13-year-old daughter. "One man spent one hour speaking to my mother, telling her all sorts of terrible things that I am supposed to have done. She was in tears for days afterwards," Howson said.

As a result of the threats, Howson confessed to Mr Flowers who flew straight up to Glasgow and made the artist sign a new contract barring him from professional dealings with anyone but his agents.

Mr Flowers said: "Peter has been under a lot of emotional and financial stress and we're trying to help him out of this situation. If he's selling paintings worth £20,000 for £2000, which is the sort of level of difference we're talking about, it undermines his market."