Handbags at dawn: artist in copyright row with Jack Vettriano hopes painting will have last word

If any old picture can be worth a thousand words then a specially created work of art should speak volumes.

Joe McLaughlin's latest painting shouts about an aggressive, "bullying" art world after he unwittingly became entangled with one of Britain's best-known contemporary artists.

A former printing worker, McLaughlin has committed to canvas his "last words" in an argument over copyright with the celebrity artist Jack Vettriano. McLaughlin has entitled his work Handbags at Dawn.

The painting, which goes on sale for £800 at Paisley Picture Framers and Gallery near Glasgow on Tuesday, was produced in response to an argument which broke out four months ago.

It features both artists with a couple of handbags in the foreground to symbolise the artistic row which was triggered when McLaughlin was accused of copying the celebrated Glasgow artist's work. He was threatened with legal action after he was inspired by a photograph in a glossy magazine to paint a portrait in March 2003 of Vettriano standing next to a naked model. Called The Artist, McLaughlin's painting depicted Vettriano arranging the rear-view pose of a naked model. It was sold for £540 in May this year. McLaughlin also produced a painting called Jack, which he described as a mirror image of The Artist.

Unfortunately, Vettriano had also produced a version of the same scene called Reach Out and Touch which formed part of a new exhibition, the first in four years, of his work at the Portland Gallery in London this summer. It was valued at the time at between £35,000 and £120,000. When Tom Hewlett, the director of the Portland and Vettriano's agent, saw McLaughlin's picture on the Ayrshire artist's website, he claimed that it was "unquestionably a clear breach of copyright".

He immediately sent a stern message to McLaughlin requesting that the picture be deleted from the website and demanded "an undertaking" to destroy the original image and not to copy other works.

However, the 43-year-old painter stuck to his guns and refused, claiming that he had completed his version more than a year before Vettriano.

It appears that both men had been inspired by a series of photographs taken in February 2003 by John Swannell, and one in particular which was published in March 2003.

McLaughlin, who admits to being an admirer of Vettriano, paid Swannell's agent £117 for artistic reference and produced his painting. Vettriano, 53, who recently made history when his work The Singing Butler sold at auction for almost £750,000, did his own painting but did not release it until the spring of 2004.

"I painted my work about 18 months before Jack Vettriano so, unless I was clairvoyant, I don't see how I could have copied him," said McLaughlin. He added that he was so angered by the threats that he put his thoughts on to canvas.

"When I tried to tell them I had taken the inspiration for The Artist from a photograph, I was called a liar," said McLaughlin. "It's just like having bullies in the playground. They come up to you and threaten you, but it's all talk and drama - it's like handbags at dawn."

His latest painting shows Vettriano in almost the same pose as he was in the original painting, but this time he is reaching out to touch the arm of McLaughlin as if to stop him painting. A pair of handbags resting on a table in the foreground are included in the painting to give it the name.

"It is meant to be tongue in cheek but I am also trying to make a point," said McLaughlin. "The threat of legal action against me has been dropped because I think they finally realised that I was right and that I had painted the scene first.

"I'm glad they have seen sense but it was both worrying and annoying at the time."

Yesterday, Vettriano's agent, Mr Hewlett, was unavailable for comment.

Comments