Vettriano's secret and the £16.99 book

Works by Scotland's most famous self-taught artist have fetched record prices at auction. But his paintings may owe more to teach-yourself manuals than anyone suspected ... Paul Kelbie reports

Now it appears his detractors may have had a point. Figures bearing an uncanny similarity to some of Vettriano's most recognisable paintings have surfaced in a £16.99 art manual.

The guide, The Illustrator's Figure Reference Manual, published in 1987 - the year Vettriano took up painting full-time - was intended as an aid for commercial artists. Now out of print, the book, which contains photographs posed by models intended to be traced or copied, are almost identical to those in Vettriano paintings such as The Singing Butler (1992), Dance Me To The End Of Love (1997), Elegy For A Dead Admiral (1996) and Waltzers (1992).

In some cases, only the clothes worn by the figures appear to have been changed. In The Singing Butler, the figure of the maid holding an umbrella is very similar to a figure in the manual of a woman holding her hat. The dancing lady is painted without the shoes she wears in the photograph and the colour of her dress has been changed to red.

The figures in Elegy For The Dead Admiral have even more striking similarities. The violinists on either side of the table and the waiter pouring the wine for a woman customer are almost identical to those in the book.

The similarities were discovered by Edinburgh graphic designer Sandy Robb when he was doing research for a friend's wedding invitations. While looking through the illustrator's reference manual he came across a number of images which he recognised as exactly the same as those in The Singing Butler and other Vettriano paintings.

Vettriano has never pretended to be anything other than self-taught. He once said: "I've always tried to be level-headed about what I am. I've never said I was a great painter, or that I should be in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art."

Critics have slated his efforts as "populist and unchallenging" and none of his works hangs in a major British public gallery. But yesterday a number of artists sprang to his defence.

"Art does not come straight out of nature, it comes out of other art," said fellow Scottish artist Richard Demarco, who is an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy. "Manuals, whether they are about architecture or about painting, have been used since the beginning of time. It doesn't matter what the source is, the magic is how he uses this manual to turn such basic, bland figures into something unique and unforgettable."

Francis McKee, a researcher at the Glasgow School of Art specialising in copyright and intellectual property, agreed. "People might use this to get at him because they are anxious about some other aspect of his work or his success and popularity but really you can't fault him for using these images," he said.

"These are standard practice models and he has just taken it a bit further as the basis of his images. I can't see anything wrong with that at all. Most artists survive on theft in some way. When you look at the renaissance period, such as medieval paintings of the Madonna and child, it was the same image all the time.

"Many modern artists use photographs now as the basis of their work to help them with their composition. It is a well-tried formula. It is interesting that people get upset about this in relation to Vettriano. You might not like Vettriano's work, but there is something else going on here."

Vettriano was born Jack Hoggan in St Andrews on 17 November 1951. At the age of 19 he gave up his job as a miner and had a number of different jobs before becoming a painter when he was 22. He subsequently took his mother's maiden name, Vettrino, and added an "a".

While his works sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds and are collected by the rich and famous - Robbie Coltrane and Jack Nicholson are among his fans - copies and prints are also available on everything from posters to coasters.

His most popular work, The Singing Butler, which set a Scottish record when it sold for £750,000 in April last year, is the best-selling print in Europe - more popular than Monet's Water Lilies or Van Gogh's Sunflowers. Vettriano himself was typically modest about this achievement, saying: "The Singing Butler is not the best painting in Scotland. It's just that in April two people were hell-bent on buying it.

Last year painter Joe Mclaughlin found himself in the middle of a plagiarism row with the world-famous artist after he was wrongly accused of copying one of Vettriano's works. He was threatened with legal action after being 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", Mr Mclaughlin's painting depicted Vettriano arranging the rear-view pose of a naked model and was sold for £540 in May 2004.

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 where it was valued at between £35,000 and £120,000. Mr Mclaughlin denied a breach of copyright and the matter was ultimately resolved when it became clear both artists had been inspired by the same image.

Yesterday Mr Mclauglin said he was "gobsmacked and angry" after discovering that the Fife-born painter had copied some of his most famous images from an art book. "The words kettle and pot come to mind when I think what he accused me of and then find out he has done exactly what he wrongly criticised me for.

"It is unbelievable. He and his gallery owner were prepared to ruin my career for something he has already done in some of his most famous works. The difference is that I was wrongly accused but even after I explained it to them, they were insisting I had to destroy paintings and tried to ruin me.

"A lot of Vettriano's early works seems to be from this reference book so it seems bizarre that he should accuse anybody of copying something when he has clearly done it himself."

Yesterday, Tom Hewlett, Vettriano's agent, defended the artist. "It is widely known that Jack is a self-taught artist and it seems unsurprising that as, in his early painting years he had neither time nor money at his disposal to work with real life models, that he should use a teaching manual such as this," he said.

"Vettriano's skill lies in his ability to create narrative paintings with which the viewer becomes involved. He is a master of generating atmosphere in his paintings and bringing to life the characters within them. In this way he transforms mundane characters into extraordinary ones and everyday scenes into special occasions."

A spokesman for the National Galleries of Scotland said: "I don't think this will change anyone's view of Vettriano. He has never claimed to do anything different and the book itself is designed to be used in the way that he used it. Vettriano is very good at what he does."

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