Philip Hensher: Mr Vettriano doesn't deserve scorn

I think we have to admit that his work has considerable charm, wherever it comes from
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.