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

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


  1. I just bought my first Jack pic today from Goodwill in the USA for $5 USD. I was scanning the available pics and “Death of an Admiral” screamed out at me. This was the first Jack pic that I have ever seen and immediately liked it. His work seems to be all about the people. The background technique only intensifies them. This picture grabbed me just like the large litiograph “Bouque of Peace” by Paccaso that I also bought for $5 USD several weeks ago at that same store. I scanned through some of his other work and don’t feel that they are too sexy or any other thing. Anyone who has lived life will see that it is life that Jack is painting. I guess that makes me a pervert too; as he has depicted my life perfectly in his paintings. I love art and I believe whole heartedly the Jack is as good an artist as I have ever seen. Screw the art crititics. I don’t have an art degree, but I think Jacks paintings help me remember all the years of my life from young to 68 years old.

    1. Wow…”ditto” to virtually everything you wrote here! I was unfamiliar with Vettriano until I bought a print of “Elegy for the Dead Admiral” at Goodwill last week (though I paid SIX dollars for mine, darn it!). Truth be told, I loved the frame and matting, and purchased it for them. But the picture has been leaning against my wall all week, and it has really grown on me, largely because I couldn’t quite figure out what was happening in it or why. (The painting’s title points toward a story, of course, but I didn’t know it until now.) I have decided to put it up as it is, with the “Elegy” print. My husband really loves it, but neither was he familiar with the artist or his work.

      His rejection by the art establishment makes his work more interesting to me. I think that gap between popularity with regular folks and acceptance and laud by the supposed learned elite just might be where the best art happens.

    2. Oh, by the way….I cannot find a year for this painting (“Elegy for the Dead Admiral”). Have you found it, by chance?

  2. His work reminds me if the “Vargas pin-up” (not original) but it’s a sleazy, oversexed version of Vargas as if Mr. Vettriano can travel back in time to the 30s armed with Viagra. Other than that, he’s pretty good for a self-taught artist and I’m happy he can make a living from his art. Personally, I’d ather buy the original Vargas prints.

    1. I’m a oil portraits artist for many years I’m not famous but I do sell my art and I have great respect for jack vettriano art is very expressive I like and creative very easy to spot his work, very recognizable as far as technics his approached to a canvas is very bold and simple yet very elegant and and honest. As a artis I believe the we must move on I respect the great master from the past like Caravaggio, da Vinci and more but we live in the present and art has to continue to grow and evolve many artists are to busy comparing and criticizing other artis instead of painting their own original honest work needles to say I like his art very much I don’t own any of his work yet but I think he is wonderful artis of our time thank u and Godbless to all. The (singing butler) my favorite .

  3. I have ‘THE SINGING BUTLER ‘ because I’ve always loved umbrellas in rain pictures. Hubby just bought me another one and Jack Vetriano was part of my guest’s conversation during Christmas dinner. I’m a big Hopper, O’Keefe, Cassett, Brassai and Dufy fan and now I’m adding Vetriano to my favorites . Looking forward to more purchases.

  4. Lovely article thank you. I do have an art degree and I’m a former art teacher. I totally disagree with these art critics. Jack’s use of light and shadow is beautiful and inspired me to start painting again. His work is all about telling a story and he does this incredibly well. The artist’s goal is to speak to his/her audience (otherwise it’s art for its own sake) and I challenge anybody to view his self portrait and not feel the emotions pouring out of it! As for character – check out the past of Picasso! My dissertation on his symbolism ended up as a very raunchy read!

  5. Jack is a decent painter but there has to be more to art than using these traditional techniques. You should do an article on the real leader of British painting. The inventive Sax Berlin

  6. His art is incredibly sexist and objectifying of the female form. As a woman his art is triggering and uncomfortable. Women are constantly reduced to our bodies by men and society. Please stop defending sexist artists who oppress women and stop us from having the same rights as men. We are not sex objects. His artwork is sleazy, misogynistic and bad for gender equality. The art world is incredibly sexist still.

    1. Rubbish… you need to grow up. Far from being sleazy his artwork celebrates women and his paintings show them unashamedly embracing their womanhood – and yes I’m a woman ☺

    2. Lighten up, Sarah. His artwork is brilliant and is so much more than existing just to trigger your overly sensitive and just waiting to be offended sense of victim hood. Rather than making waves on an art forum, you should be a good girl and make me a sandwich.

  7. As an artist speaking, and I can tell you these are fine works of art. He has a style, a very painterly noir, you can feel the paintings. Like many great artists, they are not well received by the critics of their time. His works will survive them.

  8. As an artist speaking, and I can tell you these are fine works of art. He has a style, a very painterly noir, you can feel the paintings. Like many great artists, they are not well received by the critics of their time. His works will survive them.

  9. *The Singing Butler snagged my imagination, a remembrance of things past. And then, three days ago , my internet surfing docked on ***Mr. Vettriano’s brushes reproduce my milieu, releasing recognition and evocation of our vibrant sixty-eight year marriage. Thank you, Mr. Hoggan, and incredibleart’s editors.

  10. I have been drawing, painting and visit galleries wherever I travel for years. There is something about Jack’s paintings that really draw me in. Critics are to be dismissed as none of them have anything really intelligent to offer when none have any talent. Mr. Vettriano is a breath of fresh air in the art world that’s chock full of self important and many times uninspired art. My recent recent visit to a New York gallery featured a dozen “paintings” that consisted of nothing more than thick black paint placed in various places on wood. The cost was 50,000.00 each. I wonder what the critics have to say about this artist? Nothing but praise. I rest my case.

  11. I bought the painting Mad Dogs 20 years ago on impulse. I fell in love with paintings only recently and never tire still of glancing at that painting on my bedroom wall. It still makes me sigh and dream.

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