Philip Hensher: Mr Vettriano doesn't deserve scorn

I think we have to admit that his work has considerable charm, wherever it comes from

Share
Related Topics

Mr Vettriano, just in case his work or his name has escaped you, is a painter of traditional virtues, realistic but with a slightly Art Deco edge. He specialises in very well-dressed men and women, engaging in eccentric pastimes; waltzing on beaches, that sort of thing. Often there is a louche, sexual edge to his images; frequently, the sense of that most unfashionable thing, a narrative quality. You could hand some of his images out at creative writing evening classes.

They are extremely popular. Many of his images have been reproduced over and over again on greetings cards and posters. The original of his most famous image, The Singing Butler, sold last year for £750,000. He seems to be a modest sort of man, and makes no particular claim for his art, saying that The Singing Butler is not the best painting in Scotland; it is just that "two people were hell-bent on buying it."

Nevertheless, he has been treated very rudely by the Scottish establishment. Richard Calvocoressi, the director of the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, called him an "indifferent painter", and it's fair to say his market will be confined to rich private patrons for the foreseeable future.

The source for some of those images was revealed in recent days by one Sandy Robb. A graphic artist, he was flicking through a useful reference tome of human figures, variously posed, when a series suddenly looked familiar. There, surely, was the maid at the left of The Singing Butler; there the dancing couple in the middle; and there, knees bent, the butler at the right.

It is unmistakable, and more investigation showed that Mr Vettriano, without any kind of doubt, took figures for a number of paintings directly from the Big Boys' Book of Figure Drawing. His quirkily eccentric images now look like efficient copies of stock materials. Let glee be unconfined.

Actually, I don't know about this. The principle in itself doesn't seem a questionable one for an artist of Mr Vettriano's type. Going back in history, it's extremely easy to pick out facial expressions, in the paintings of even very good painters, as lifted directly from systematic studies of the passions in physiognomy. Artists have always used stock properties - in the works of prolific portraitists, you can trace particular studio properties through a whole run of portraits. Constable's recurrent fondness for a small figure in a bright red jacket is so marked that you could hardly say it comes from observation on each occasion; rather, it must be the sort of formal property he had concluded could usefully be imported from outside.

Mr Vettriano has, it's true, just lifted and quoted some commercial material, and has hardly made any attempt to alter it to his own purpose. In The Singing Butler, the maid is given an apron, and the dancing woman's dress is red instead of white; umbrellas are imported, not enormously convincingly, and an attempt at rendering outdoor lighting has been made.

Other than that, it is, pretty well, a straight transcription of the stock figures.

All the same, I think we have to admit that Mr Vettriano's work has some considerable charm, wherever it comes from. I wouldn't want to describe it as art of the highest aesthetic qualities, but I think one could see that before these discoveries. What I don't understand is why a likeable, popular painter like this one should be dismissed in such vitriolic terms. There ought to be a niche for him.

After all, in other art forms, we treat popular, proficient practitioners with respect. Just because we ourselves admire Philip Roth above most other novelists, there is no reason why we should not express decent admiration for an efficient, literate writer of thrillers like PD James or Ian Rankin. They, too, are admirable writers. Kiarostami may be doing something of the highest filmic value, but it would be an utter prig who could not enjoy the elegant craftsmanship of Joss Whedon's sci-fi opera Serenity.

And in painting, I do strongly feel that there is a place for an artist like Mr Vettriano, and he doesn't deserve scorn. He is certainly not a charlatan in any sense; he paints pleasingly, with an individual touch, and produces simple, memorable, often charming images.

He has ended up a commercial painter, making a good deal of money out of his work, but you only have to look at it to see that that is not his primary intention. He has obviously worked hard at his painting, and has acquired some technical ability. I'm sure, like all good popular artists, he's surprised and pleased that his work appeals to so many people.

Of course, he is not a great painter in the sense that Lucian Freud is a great painter. But what you can say about Mr Vettriano is that he is a highly proficient, popular artist, with some technical skill and the power to charm even very simple people, who may never hear of Dubuffet. There must, surely, be a place and a degree of respect in all the variety of the art world for such an artist, however he creates his work.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Among the ‘extreme’ ideas favoured by Neil Findlay is the re-nationalisation of Scottish railways  

Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

DJ Taylor
Bill Cosby dismisses the allegations that have demolished his lovable TV persona as ‘innuendos’  

Bill Cosby: from America's dad to sexual predator

Rupert Cornwell
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin