A brush with fame

Famous names from film and music have taken up the paintbrush (or pencil) – some with great commercial success. But is it really art, asks Adam Edwards.

February 18 2010
Adam Edwards

The Marquess of Bath, the eccentric bearded aristocrat famous for, among other things, the paintings of his “wifelets” on the walls of his stately home at Longleat in Wiltshire, believes that he is one of the best painters in Britain. Why does this 77-year-old well-bred ageing hippie think this? Because, he once told me, despite painting since 1964, he has never sold a single piece and so his work is priceless.

I was musing on this batty upper-class view of fine art after an interview with the great British actor Anthony Hopkins. He, too, is a painter who says he is uninterested in the price his work fetches. The 72-year-old Oscar-winning thespian, now most famous for his role as the crazed serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, has been placing oil on canvas since 2003, the year he married his third wife, Stella Arroyave, an art gallery curator. It was she who, upon discovering the star’s doodles in the margins of old scripts, encouraged the knight of the boards to take up the flat and filbert brush in earnest. Since when, the snow-haired Hopkins has been creating canvases – mostly bright, bold acrylic portraits and landscapes, as well as some pen and ink drawings – like a man, ahem, possessed.

“I don’t have any formal training,” he says. “I’ve been told not to get any. I just go with the flow.” And now that flow has arrived in Britain. This month, his work has been showing in the West End for the first time, and moves to Edinburgh next month.

“I paint by sheer instinct,” says Hopkins, speaking to me from his Malibu studio, where he knuckles down to his art three or four times a week and on most weekends. “I am amused and bewildered by any success. I give a lot of them away, and I sell them for the fun of it.” Hopkins also donates some money from the sales to charity.

Hopkins is the latest in a string of what have now been bracketed “celebrity painters”. Last year it was Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, who dumbfounded the London art world with his original oil paintings that sold for as much as £50,000. In the US, disco singer Donna Summer has also been fêted for her work with a brush. The organiser of her 1990 show, Jack Solomon, with rather too much hyperbole, I thought, described Summer as “touched with sparks of genius… a Renaissance woman”, and sold two of her acrylics Hard For The Money and Jazz Man for $45,000 apiece.

In 2007, Bob Dylan staged his first show, The Drawn Blank Exhibition, in Germany to great acclaim. His latest show is currently on at Halcyon Gallery in London’s West End. The actor Tony Curtis, who is generally agreed to be the best of the “celebrity painters”, once remarked, “I’d like to be known as an artist who acts rather than an actor who paints.” And the actress Lucy Liu has held several exhibitions of her sketches and paintings, which raised more than $267,000 for Unicef in her role as a Goodwill Ambassador.

In Britain, it is often the wealthy, ageing rock star who, when his guitar no longer weeps, begins to whiff of turpentine. The former Beatle Paul McCartney took up painting when he turned 40; John Lennon’s drawings still sell; and David Bowie and Jon Anderson, formerly of Yes, are some of the rock’n’roll artists with time on their hands and an artistic itch to scratch.

Unfortunately, many critics do not think kindly of much of the work. The art critic Brian Sewell deplores the “infuriating tendency among clapped-out old pop stars to become artists… They usually produce unmitigated garbage and should stick to what they were doing… I don’t think anyone can move into the visual arts at that age and expect to be taken seriously.” Adrian Searle, the respected art critic of The Guardian, has claimed that “celebrity art is nearly always terrible” and described John Lennon’s work as “felt-tip comic cuts that have been blown up and tarted up and made to look as if they might be valuable”, while another critic described the work of Micky Dolenz of The Monkees as “artwork for Star Trek fans”. And yet, despite this derision, the paintings by the famous sell well and are usually very expensive.

There is also a fair body of the art world that defends the paintbox players. Jonathan Poole is the owner of the Compton Cassey Gallery and the man behind the majority of the celebrity artists’ shows in the UK, including Lennon, Wood and Hopkins.

“Critics are sarcastic about musicians and actors painting, but these guys are capable of expressing themselves in more ways than one,” says Poole. “Lennon is now accepted by the art world. In that world there is good and bad art, but on any given day, art is a question of public taste. Thirty years after the death of Lennon, the public wants to see and buy his visual art, so he deserves to be considered an artist as much as anyone else.”

Poole studied design and sculpture at London City & Guilds and has exhibited at the Royal Academy and worldwide. In his mid-20s, when his hair was long and his friends were in the music business, he started organising other musicians’ exhibitions. He produced several shows at the Royal Festival Hall combining art with music and ballet. However, it was when he was touring the US with a show of the Best of British sculpture that his Damascene conversion happened: “In the early 1980s I was in Washington, DC, and I went to see the exhibition of Lennon’s drawings,” says Poole, who now sports a goatee with his still longish grey-flecked hair. “I was knocked out. I realised this was the direction I wanted to take. I arranged to see Yoko Ono in New York and offered to organise an exhibition of John’s work in London.”

Other musicians, encouraged by Lennon’s acceptance as an artist, followed suit. Within a few years, Poole’s roster of wannabe artists included the singer Judy Collins, John Isley, Klaus Voormann (“the fifth Beatle”, who played on Imagine and with the Plastic Ono Band) and the jazz legend Miles Davis. “David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Eno, Bryan Ferry, John Lennon, Pink Floyd and Ronnie Wood all trained in the visual arts,” says Poole. “So it’s not surprising that some of them should be able to compete at the top level in the art game.”

But while the famous strummers and strollers may be slugging it out under gallery lighting rather than limelights, the question remains: are they any good, or are the paintings, as one critic remarked, “just five-figure autographs”?

Philip Mould, the leading specialist dealer in British art, and a frequent guest on the Antiques Roadshow, is ambivalent about the quality of most celebrity art, but he has no doubt that the fame of an actor or rock star is a crucial element in achieving high prices in the same way that, he says, the celebrity of artists such as Damien Hirst and Banksy underpins their value.

“For many, buying a work of art is an act of faith,” he said. “They may like it, but deciding whether it is profound or enduring can be beyond them. Uncertain buyers rely on things like the market endorsement of dealers, auctioneers, critics and museums. In the absence of these, popular acclaim can act as a fair substitute. In a world that does not often distinguish between greatness and celebrity, the fame of an individual can be enough to lend reassurance.”

Sometimes that reassurance pays off. Take the case of Winston Churchill. He was dismissed as a complete amateur in his early days at the easel. Painting was a huge passion for the wartime leader, who said, “I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely occupies the mind.” However, his work became acclaimed by critics, and nowadays his originals can sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Today, it is Anthony Hopkins who is passionate about painting, and he devotes a huge amount of his spare time to it – and does not give a fig for critics.

“If my art doesn’t work, I am not going to be arrested and thrown in jail,” says Hopkins, who is also a competent classical composer and has had several of his pieces played by the 75-piece San Antonio Symphony Orchestra. “Some people like my artwork. They see it as an affirmation of life. Other people are cynical and they enjoy ripping it to pieces.

“I like to think the paintings are quirky and full of colour. I go into the studio and paint what comes to mind. Frequently, it is strange faces or harsh landscapes. I don’t know where the inspiration comes from, although if my work is influenced at all, it is by the German expressionists, who liked grotesques and baulked at sentimentality.”

Hopkins first showed his paintings in 2005 in San Antonio, Texas, where more than 100 of his works sold in less than a week. The paintings ranged in price from £3,000 to £12,000, while his ink drawings fetched £1,500 plus.

“If it sells, the money goes to charity or to fund other enterprises,” he says. That view is also held by another grand amateur painter: the Prince of Wales. Any money raised by the sale of his scenic lithographs goes to the Prince’s Charities Foundation.

And when the artists have this kind of philanthropic approach, it seems churlish to ask the question: is it really art?