Donny O'Rourke, an

'aesthetic glutton', tells

Clare Henry what first

made him bite

I believe firmly in the

free pleasure of art. It's

available to anyone via

galleries and books

DONNY O'Rourke bought his first picture in 1983 with his very first

pay cheque. ''I was working in London as chairman of the British Youth

Council and on a brief visit home saw Peter Howson's lithograph, Four

Scottish Scenes, at Corners, the framers in Gibson Street. It appealed

to me instantly. I didn't think I could afford it, but it was only #35.

In the end I bought three prints and got a discount.''

The other two were Howson's Man with Cigarette and The Lovers by

Dominic Snyder. All three pictures hung in his London flat while

O'Rourke worked at the BBC and still hold pride of place in Glasgow,

where he is now head of arts for Scottish Television.

O'Rourke has continued to buy difficult, challenging work by young

Scottish artists. ''I was never interested in putting pretty things on

my walls. I hate art as decor; art as a commodity. All my pictures have

meant something. In the Renaissance scholars kept a skull on their desks

as a reminder of mortality; a memento mori. Howson's picture is my

memento mori. It poses questions much bigger than anything that happens

in my living room.''

In 1983 Howson was at the start of his career and little known.

O'Rourke, like most, had never heard of him, ''although I was aware of

some artistic stirrings from reading your Herald column. I was drawn to

Howson by his exceptional draughtsmanship, of course -- but it was more

than that. Howson's Four Scenes said something all too true about the

Scots and encapsulated everything I felt about the place.

''It was four years into the Thatcher government and I was angry about

the way politics were going. I was feeling very Scottish -- and a bit

homesick. The print shows a crushed, compressed little world full of

dour, doomed people, drunks, thugs, and push-button sex. Hope is

available but has to be identified and seized. The composition has a

split screen quality reminding me of cinema and film. Its green and

orange colours are symbolic of a divided Glasgow. The airplane flying

across the top corner, an image both of escape and yearning, hints at

the Scots destiny as emigrants. It was perfect.''

On his return to Scotland O'Rourke's work at STV soon put him in touch

with artists. ''It was just the time when substantial figures like Ken

Currie were making their mark. Many were about my own age and their work

was affordable. Most of my pictures have personal connections. Many are

celebrations and mementoes of friends.''

Friends like Peter Nardini, Gwyneth Leach, Fred Crayk, and Douglas

Thomson, then tutor, whom he met when he enrolled in art evening classes

at Woodside. (''I was very keen but knowing artists has stopped me

drawing. I realised what a gulf there was between my talent and

theirs!'') O'Rourke asked Synder and Leach to illustrate his first book

of poems, Second Cities, published in 1991.

O'Rourke maintains he's not really a collector. ''I prefer the company

of any painter to any painting.'' He's quick to reject an acquisitive

motive. ''It's about proximity, not ownership. I've never spent a lot.

It's not a status symbol. I believe firmly in the free pleasure of art.

It's available to anyone via art galleries and books.''

And even TV. Since O'Rourke became producer of Scottish Television's

arts slot, NB, in 1989 he's featured 100 painters and sculptors. ''The

first important segment we did was on East Campbell Street studios in

1990. NB was a breakthrough because it got painters into people's living


In 1990 O'Rourke went to New York with some artists exhibiting at the

Mary Ryan Gallery. They included Neil MacPherson who painted his

portrait, D. O'R at the Riverside Cafe, Brooklyn. ''A riotous time was

had by all -- and having seen the poor standard of American work, I came

back with renewed energy, determined to do more to spread the word in

Scotland as to just how good our artists are.''

He sees his TV outlook as in some respects very painterly. ''I spend a

lot of time looking through a camera or at a screen but I don't like

things rendered in too straightforward a way. Photography can be a

lulling, gulling medium. I like a degree of distortion and

re-interpretation; the extra dimension.''

HE IS catholic in his tastes. ''All kinds of art are welcome in my

house and on my programme. In a fully grown Scotland we are beyond the

tyranny of either/or; we don't have to choose between representation and

abstraction, figuration or conceptualism. We can have it all.''

So far O'Rourke's collection also includes pictures by John Taylor,

Bet Low, Jim Tweedie, William Crosbie, Gary Anderson, and Keith

McIntyre. McIntyre's Winged Head is a reminder of their 1991

collaboration on the Lockerbie Requiem. ''McIntyre rang on a frantic day

but he was so persuasive that I reorganised my schedule and went to see

him. Somehow I got the money to get the programme made. I found the

whole thing incredibly moving.''

Much of O'Rourke's poetry is about painting and several of his

pictures, like Tweedie's Poet Muse, Crosbie's study for Sorley Maclean's

Songs for Emma, Alasdair Gray's self-portrait and Ian Hamilton Finlay's

Blue Sail, also relate to poetry. But despite his passion for poetry (he

has compiled an Anthology of Young Scottish Poetry for Polygon),

O'Rourke, a self-confessed ''aesthetic glutton'', believes that painting

is usually the clearest indicator of how a culture is doing.