Jack Vettriano has enjoyed worldwide fame for his iconic paintings. Now a new exhibition will bring his early work home to Kirkcaldy in Fife where he grew up

A new exhibition of Jack Vettriano paintings at Kirkcaldy Galleries takes the artist back to where it all started. He was born in Fife in 1951, growing up in Methil and Leven. 

After leaving school at 15, he followed his father down the mine, working as an apprentice engineer. When a girlfriend bought him a set of watercolours for his birthday, he began borrowing books from the library in Kirkcaldy to teach himself to paint and fed a growing passion for art through visits to the local gallery during his early twenties. The paintings he created during this formative period form the basis of the showcase.  

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 Bluebird at Bonneville

“I’m not trying to be the harbinger of doom, but I think this might be my last exhibition in Kirkcaldy, so it’s a kind of sentimental journey,” he says. The exhibition displays a rare aspect of his early work that he feels ready to share with a wider audience. Previously he was more comfortable separating paintings completed under his own name, Jack Hoggan, as a hobbyist from those completed under his professional persona as Jack Vettriano. 

“I have come to the conclusion that I would like people to see how I started and what I did and copied under my first name, and then how I found my niche,” Jack explains.

“Before, I didn’t want to contaminate one with the other, so I took my mother’s name, which was a fairly smart tactical move, I think.”

That first burst of inspiration came from “the way that other artists apply paint, whether they do it in a very fine way or whether they do it in a very thick way, like the colourists. Kirkcaldy has a wonderful collection of colourist paintings, as well as the Scottish impressionists, like William McTaggart”.

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Sweet Bird of Youth

 

There was an element of escapism in continuing to visit galleries as Jack developed as an artist. “When I finished my apprenticeship with the coal board, I was on what I call a grand tour. I went to London and lived in a wee bedsit. I used to go to art galleries at the weekends and I started to just think: ‘I’d like to try that.’ 

“Artists don’t start off creating masterpieces. I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be good for people to see my early work, watch the progression. Especially, I think, people who dabble with paint. Generally speaking, you go to an art gallery, and you see the very best of somebody’s work, which might be, for an amateur artist, as I once was, a bit intimidating. I think I’m happy to show that you have to start somewhere.”

We talk about Jack finding his style, a distinctive, pared-down realism with film noir notes that has led to him becoming one of the Scotland’s best known modern artists. He reverts to talking about finding his niche: “I came to the point where I knew how to get it on the canvas, then I finally realised that my life was my imagination. So, you then get a lot of broken hearts and some nice, breezy beach paintings. That’s me.” 

The enduring popularity of his genre-painting is epitomised by The Singing Butler, an oil on canvas painting from 1992 that sold at auction in 2004 for £744,800, the record at the time for any Scottish painting, and is the best-selling art print in the UK. 

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Mad Dogs

 

Making his art accessible and widely available did nothing to improve Jack’s relationship with the art establishment. 

“That’s just one of the most snobbish attitudes of critics and national galleries. Popularity equates to trash, that’s their notion. I thought long and hard before I licensed them. I suspect that had the technology been available a few hundred years ago, many more artists would have done it.

“That has been enormously successful in spreading my work around the world, certainly the English-speaking world. Show me an artist who wouldn’t mind a quarterly cheque for a few hundred thousand pounds, and I’ll show you a liar.”

After spending much of lockdown in Edinburgh and extended periods of his life in London, he now calls Nice in the south of France home. “I like the food, the weather, the romance of Provence. I never have had many friends, so I enjoy my own company, and I get lost in books and music.”

Art is still part of his life. 

“I don’t paint as often as I used to. Perhaps every other day. I think a lot about what I’ve done, what I’d like to have done. I’m full of nostalgia. Mind you, at this age, that’s all you’ve got.”

After the exhibition was postponed twice due to the pandemic, Jack is looking forward to his early paintings returning to where they were inspired, but corrects me when I call him a Scottish artist, noting: “I’m an artist who was born in Scotland. We’re just artists, regardless of where we come from. I look at my work sometimes, and I think: ‘Would anybody realise that?’ There’s no shortbread and tartan.” 

Yet there is more Fife in Jack Vettriano’s work than you might expect. “From the age of 10, I lived in Leven, which was very popular then with people from the West Coast. Leven Beach is gorgeous. It’s the kind of beach where you can walk 400 yards before your ankles start to get wet. 

“It’s lovely, especially between Leven and Lower Largo.” This setting is the backdrop to some of his most famous works. “Billy Boys, Mad Dogs, Dance Me to the End of Love, they are all based on that beach.  

“It’s very comforting when people comment on these paintings and others, knowing that they tend to be very autobiographical. I once met a woman who said to me:

“See that singing butler dancing on that Italian beach?” I just thought: ‘I’ll let her think that. Don’t spoil her dreams.’.”

Jack Vettriano – The Early Years runs 17 June – 23 October, presented in association with Dickson Minto. 
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