Fife artist Jack Vettriano’s ‘over-excited’ to show off early work at new exhibition in Kirkcaldy

Celebrated artist Jack Vettriano is currently exhibiting at Kirkcaldy.
Celebrated artist Jack Vettriano is currently exhibiting at Kirkcaldy.

Following a turbulent few years, Fife-born artist Jack Vettriano is hoping his new exhibition at Kirkcaldy Galleries will give him a “personal lift”.

The 70-year-old self-taught painter admits to being “a wee bit over-excited” prior to Jack Vettriano: The Early Years finally opening to the public last week, after it was postponed twice due to the pandemic.

57 early works on show

Covering the years up to 2000, it brings together 57 of his early paintings, the majority of which have come from private collections. Two from the Fife gallery’s own collection also feature.

Visitors can see rare works signed under the artist’s birth name of Hoggan, which he produced in his early 20s and 30s.

Bluebird at Bonneville by Jack Vettriano.

Accompanying these are well-known pieces such as The Billy Boys, Valentine Rose and Bluebird at Bonneville.

Some have commanded five and six figure sums at auction and these heralded a surge in his popularity.

Kirkcaldy Galleries an inspiration

Raised in Methil and Leven, Jack was formerly an apprentice mining engineer and became a full-time painter at the age of 40.

He credits Kirkcaldy Galleries for kickstarting his passion for art and he also borrowed books from the neighbouring library in order to teach himself how to paint.

This is his first retrospective show since a major exhibition at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery in 2013 – and the first to focus on his formative years and early career.

Jack says: “My feeling about showing the early stuff is that I want the public to see that nobody starts off doing a masterpiece – nobody!

Jack Vettriano’s The Billy Boys.

“You’ve got to learn your craft and these paintings are, I think with maybe a couple of exceptions, copies and that is a thing that has completely gone out of fashion.”

The exhibition is divided into different rooms, with one housing the paintings Jack created under his surname of Hoggan while he was teaching himself the rudiments of painting. It was only later that he took the name Vettriano.

He explains: “It’s my mother’s maiden name, which I have always loved. I did that to distinguish between what I could see was my own style developing. I didn’t want that to get contaminated by the copies.”

Evolution of a style

As the exhibition progresses, it follows the emergence of Jack’s style until it reaches the unmistakable and distinctive compositions for which he is now famed.

He goes on: “If you put some of the Impressionists, some of the Old Masters, Cezanne, Degas, a few Scottish artists and you mix it up and what comes out is me.

“Because you are picking up many things from many different artists. You’re not just copying one.”

Mad Dogs by Jack Vettriano.

Famously shunned by the National Galleries of Scotland, it wasn’t until 2011 that his self portrait The Weight went on display while on loan from a private collection.

His work has never been purchased by the organisation.

Jack was awarded an OBE for services to visual arts in 2003. The following year, he made history when his 1992 painting The Singing Butler sold at auction for £744,800, breaking all records for a Scottish painting at the time.

Rejection letter on show

A rejection letter from Edinburgh College of Art dating back to 1989 turning down Jack’s application to study is on display for the first time. He came across it while going through some paperwork.

After being told a copy he made of the 1878 painting Fishing for Oysters at Cancale by American Artist John Singer Sargent was “better than the original”, Jack says he decided to seek inspiration from his own subject matter.

He explains: “It was at that point I realised there was only one way to go forward and that was to find out what comes from your heart. I thought: ‘this is where you have to look at your own life’.”

‘All in the name of research’

He gives a wry laugh, continuing: “And what you see is somebody who is difficult to live with … I’ve had my heart broken, I’ve broken some hearts – all in the name of research.”
In 1989, Jack submitted two paintings to the Royal Scottish Academy’s summer exhibition and what happened next inspired a turning point in his career.

Fife-born artist Jack Vettriano has had some knockbacks in his time, before making the big time.

He recalls: “Those two marked my arrival. They sold within 15 minutes because I gatecrashed the party and I found them both with red seals on them.

“And I thought, ‘well, if you like this, I’ve got some stories to tell you’.

“I was at the end of my thirties and I had lived a very ‘interesting’ life since I was 14. I had loads of stories to tell and that’s why my first exhibition was called Tales of Love and Other Stories because I see these paintings as little vignettes – a short story.”

He muses: “I think the popularity of my paintings is based on the fact that people would like to step into that world, so long as they could find their way out. Whereas I’m stuck in it.”

Erotic depictions of women

Jack has been quizzed many a time on whether his erotic paintings objectify women, but he is genuine in his belief they do not.

He reveals: “When she was alive, my mother once said to me relatively early in my career: ‘Son, do you have to paint women like that?’ and I said: ‘I do, mum, I actually really do’, which I think she understood.”

He adds: “I have had the pleasure of painting women who are not afraid to come out and tell me what they envisage them being in a painting.”

Moving on to recent events, Jack describes the years prior to – and during – Covid as “terrible”.

The Critical Hour of 3am by Jack Vettriano.

“Maybe a couple of years before lockdown I was involved in a disastrous, dysfunctional relationship which cost me both financially and emotionally and I started to drink too much,” he says, trailing off because that’s where he wishes to leave this part of the conversation.

Stranded in an Edinburgh hotel

When it came to lockdown, the turbulence continued and he found himself stranded in an Edinburgh hotel for months while the world shut down.

He explains: “I was in a queue of people waiting to board a plane from Gatwick to Edinburgh. I was coming up to discuss the exhibition.

“When I arrived at Edinburgh Airport the police were putting up cordons and I went to a hotel in St Andrews Square, turned on the TV and everything had stopped.

“There were no more restaurants open, the restaurants in the hotel closed, the bar closed and I was stranded there without any materials.”

Unable to return to his London home, he remained there until the estate agents reopened and he was able to find himself an apartment in the capital.

‘Like Jack Nicholson in The Shining’

He goes on: “It got so bad that, given my age I was in a high risk group. I was terrified of catching it. I spent five months alone in a hotel. I felt like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.”

Jack reveals this period took a severe toll on him mentally as well as physically and says he has given up “the intake of substances” to help his body recover.

Valentine Rose by Jack Vettriano.

For him, it has been a long wait for the Kirkcaldy exhibition, which was curated three years ago before being postponed twice.

He is hoping the show will set him on a more positive path: “I think Kirkcaldy will be a big boost for me. This is where it started – and this is probably where it will end.

“Now, I don’t mean that I’m giving up painting – I most certainly am not. I’ve just set up a studio in Nice and I’ve got a workspace in Edinburgh.

“I’m really grateful that I can do this because I think the people who have supported me throughout have been the people of Scotland. So I’m hoping it gives me a personal lift.”

Paints what he wants to

And while he’s had his share of run-ins with critics and the wider art establishment, Jack says he’s always pleased himself when it comes to his creations: “That’s what I have done from the start. I’ve never allowed anybody – not the critics or the galleries that represented me – to tell me what to paint.”

He adds: “My advice to young artists would be don’t lock yourself in a smoke-filled room and wonder how you can shock people.

“Just go out, have a life, and from that life will come the seeds that sow a future for you.”

  • Jack Vettriano: The Early Years runs at Kirkcaldy Galleries until October 23, 2022. Tickets start from £8.50 and under 16s go free.

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