The Singing Butler by Jack Vettriano

Who Is the Most Popular Artist in Britain, and Why Does the Establishment Fear Him?

Prints of his paintings outsell those of Monet, Dali and Van Gogh put together, yet he’s vilified by art critics and almost completely ignored by galleries.

Elegy For the Dead Admiral
Elegy For the Dead Admiral

So what is it about Jack Vettriano’s work that makes him such a polarising figure?


His background is about as distant – figuratively speaking, as well as literally – as it could be, from the vainglorious and insular world of palaverous, champagne-breakfasting South Bank art critics.

Narcissistic Bathers painting by Jack Vettriano
Narcissistic Bathers

Born in Fife, Scotland, in 1951 into an impoverished mining family, Vettriano found himself working in the pits by the time he was 16 years old.

It wasn’t until he reached 21 that he first picked up a brush – thanks to a girlfriend who gifted him a watercolour set for his birthday.

He never trained formally as an artist, preferring to trust his natural instincts in front of the canvas. Forty-five years on, he’s sold out exhibitions around the world, from Hong Kong to New York, received an OBE (Order of the British Empire award), and received commissions to paint royalty.

Yet he remains the target of stinging and surly criticism from establishment critics, who rail, not only against his art, but against the man himself.

What Do the Critics Say?

Condemnation comes almost unanimously from those who have made a living talking about art, rather than creating it themselves.

Sweet Bird of Youth Study by Jack Vettriano
Sweet Bird of Youth Study

When it comes to Vettriano’s work, journeyman hack Josh Spero, writing in the Guardian, once described it as as “sleazy” – before launching a personal assault on the artist himself, depicting him as untalented and uninspired.

Perhaps the most resentful derogation came from Sandy Moffat, the former Head of Painting at Glasgow Art School, who complained that “He can’t paint. He just colours in.”

Vettriano’s work has largely been ignored by the nation’s prominent galleries, too. Despite having produced some of the most popular and well-recognized images of our time, it seems he’s just not the right fit for the powerful art clique.

What Do His Fans Think?

While the vociferous rejection and bad-tempered disapproval of Vettriano’s work comes from an extremely small – yet influential – coterie of characters, his work has been celebrated with acclaim in the rest of society.

Sweet Bird of Youth - Jack Vettriano
Sweet Bird of Youth

His nostalgic aesthetic, which looks to an age of style and glamour, has attracted interest and praise from figures across the social spectrum. Actor Jack Nicholson and football legend Sir Alex Ferguson are both known to be fans, both having purchased Vettriano’s works for their personal collections. A portrait of Zara Phillips – twelfth in line to the British throne – fetched £36,000, which the artist donated to Sport Relief.

His fans appreciate his honest approach to his art. While his use of romantic and even suggestive images has been derided by critics, many feel that his paintings bring to life a longed-for world of allure and finesse.

At a time when the in-crowd prefers to celebrate the bizarre and the flatulent – the recent works of Anthea Hamilton and Micheal Dean come to mind – Vettriano’s frankness and lack of pomposity comes as a welcome breath of fresh air.

What’s All the Fuss About?

Vettriano’s most celebrated work is undoubtedly his 1992 painting, The Singing Butler. This almost illusionistic work displays the artist’s unashamedly nostalgic, yet enigmatic vision of a moment and an age which inspires both delight and regret.

The Singing Butler by Jack Vettriano
The Singing Butler

Vettriano seduces the aesthete with a scene from a British beach – two lovers dance as they are sheltered from the rain by their maid and butler. It is only from the name of the piece that we can deduce that the butler is providing the music, yet we can easily guess that he must be crooning some ballad from around the 1930s. This painting has reportedly inspired everyone from amateur playwrights, to soldiers on the front line of war. Small wonder, then, that the painting sold for a record £750,000 in 2004, and that it went on to become Britain’s best-selling art print.

The painting’s detractors, however, see it as crude, both in terms of technique and vision. In Vettriano’s opinion, establishment art critics are afraid to praise art that they don’t consider to be edgy or grimy enough.

In one interview he speculated that he might be more popular with the “in-crowd” if he focused his attention on people living lives of poverty and hardship, something professional art critics tend to know little about, yet sentimentalize with affected empathy. Vettriano, on the other hand, knew nothing but poverty during his first decades. The Singing Butler’s appeal lies in its idealistic charm – something of vital importance to all who experience hardship.

Postcards from Hell

In a scathing 2011 Guardian article, failed historian-turned-freelance-art-critic Jonathan Jones lamented the “outrage” of the Scottish artist’s “trite and technically drab” 2010 self-portrait being hung in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Anticipating the backlash of Vettriano’s fans, who had already voiced their disappointment with the establishment’s continual disparaging of his work, he went on to mount a feeble defence of art-world critics. His line of argument seemed to be that he finds Vettriano’s self-portrait uninspiring, and because he’s a critic – perhaps because he went to Cambridge too – that we should take his opinion seriously.

Regardless of this blinkered view and unfair treatment, the self-portrait – entitled ‘The Weight’, was rightly displayed at the nation’s Portrait Gallery.

Not only is Vettriano one of Scotland’s most celebrated artists, the painting itself is highly reflective and full of emotional tension. In it, the artist sits on the side of a bed, looking down at his clasped hands.

Jack Vettriano self-portrait - The Weight
Jack Vettriano – The Weight

The soft textures and sullen tones create a pensive and sombre mood.

It is a work reflecting a moment, an emotion that people can instantly relate to, and it is perhaps this fact that drives critics into their indignant paroxysms.

It is far too easy to interpret – there is no need to provide an elaborate and confusing story about the artist’s process.

It requires no pretentious references to “the subconscious juxtaposition of the oblique and the sublime” and other such nonsense, so often spewed by critics.

This self-portrait is easy to understand, and that is what art critics fear the most – if people can make their own minds up about art, then what need will we have of art critics?

It is this reasoning that leads dissemblers such as Jones to label print reproductions of Vettriano’s work as “postcards from hell”.

Good Company

Such criticism of ground-breaking artists by an inward-looking and self-congratulating elite is, of course, nothing new.

Walzers painting by Jack Vettriano
Walzers

The first painting that 21 year-old Jack Vettriano attempted was a reproduction of a work by Claude Monet. Could he have foreseen that his own work would incite a reaction similar to that with which the French master’s was greeted?

The contemporary quacks of Monet’s time derided his work as overly visceral, and questioned his artistic integrity. They didn’t understand Impressionism and didn’t like it. Yet, Monet’s works are celebrated and honoured to this day, and his critics long forgotten, without even a footnote on the pages of history.

The same story could be told of Van Gogh, Rembrandt or Lowry – their work and reputations have outlived their detractors.

In fact, if there is one indication that art will stand the test of time – from Caravaggio to Ai Weiwei – it is that the establishment disapproves of it.

Don’t miss this two-part BBC interview of Vettriano!


The Fallacy of Irrelevance

When negative criticism of an artist is rebutted with mass popularity, such critics tend to level their arguments against both the artist’s character and their admirers. We are told that the artist lacks integrity, is of questionable character, and that we are unqualified to know what we should appreciate.

Game On - Jack Vettriano
Game On

Unsurprisingly, after Vettriano’s initial successes, it didn’t take long for his critics to aim their blows below the belt.

Vettriano has made no secret of his lifestyle.

He’s been arrested for drink-driving.

He smokes.

He was once caught with a bag of powdered amphetamine.

He has described his past as “hedonistic”, and claims to have lived through “25 years of sexual misbehaviour“.

His Favourite Girl
His Favourite Girl

Read his establishment critics and you might believe he really was some kind of crazed, sex-obsessed bodger, crudely sketching out his fantasies on canvass, then colouring them in.

The reality is quite different, of course; now 65 years old, he comes across as a careful, pensive man, who speaks openly and sincerely about his work.

Such ad hominem attacks, to which Vettriano is regularly subjected to by art critics, are universally recognised as the last powder in the barrel, which usually tends to backfire.

Resorting to attacking a person’s character or lifestyle usually indicates that the critic no longer has faith in their ability to succeed in disparaging that person’s work.

Perhaps the most scandalous artist in history – Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – is still remembered firstly as a brilliant artist, and only secondly as a murderer and a thug.

What is Art?

Criticism of Vettriano’s art can usually be broken down to a subjective disapproval, usually of his themes and choice of subject. We are told that his work is vulgar and unimaginative.

Private Dancer - Jack Vettriano
Private Dancer

This arrogant pseudo-analysis indirectly extends to his millions of admirers – we are being told that we are also unimaginative, that our tastes are also coarse and crude. According to the establishment, we should be content in being told what is worthy of our appreciation, rather than deciding for ourselves.

Jack Vettriano didn’t go to art school.

He didn’t learn how to describe his process in an obscure and verbose manner.

He didn’t grow up associating with the conceited gaggle of pretenders who make a living talking about art.

He just picked up a brush and tried to create something for people to enjoy. The negative hype surrounding his work simply serves to make his popularity that bit more incredible.

The Proposal - Jack Vettriano
The Proposal


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