By Bill Heaney
The artist Gerald Laing has died at his home, Kinkell Castle on the Black Isle, aged 75.
Laing was best known for his iconic images, which included as the remarkable 1962 portrait of French film star Brigitte Bardot and, more recently, his paintings of Amy Winehouse, who herself died earlier this year.
Always operating on the pulse of modernity, Laing’s early talent was recognised by both his contemporaries and the art establishment whilst he was a student at St Martin’s College of Art in London. He painted many of his memorable images there, including the one of Bardot, which went on to become a bestselling Habitat poster and highly collectable screenprint.
Laing was invited along with other British Pop artists, notably Richard Smith, Peter Blake and Joe Tilson, to attend weekly discussions about the “New Idea”, and at about the same time in New York he was accepted on the art scene in America.
Laing was at the centre of the American Pop Art movement. Before graduating, he had been taken on by a leading American gallery, after which he then moved his young family to New York, where he made a successful name for himself as an “American” artist.
He showed his work at the American Pavilion at São Paulo Biennale in 1966 and his paintings were acquired by leading American museums and institutions. The subjects of his work during this period were mainly based around four themes: the novelty of space travel; the modern and dangerous pursuit of dragster racing; sport parachuting; and his infamous Starlets, the bikini-clad “ideal” women.
Laing had a dedicated passion and appreciation for machinery and young women that lasted throughout his lifetime.
Friends describe him as “a bold and political thinker”, and Laing was also known for using the Pop idiom as reportage to confront controversial issues throughout his career, often provoking strong reactions.
For example, his commemorative work Lincoln convertible, believed to be the only painted record of President John F Kennedy’s assassination by a living artist of significance, was deemed too controversial to display.
It was hidden away from view by his art dealer in a shed for almost 30 years. Again according to friends, so profound was the impact of this on Laing, and such was his disappointment, that it contributed towards shattering his faith in the American Dream.
Similarly, the body of work he produced in response to the wars in Iraq and the 7/7 London bombings are later examples of Laing using his art as a platform on which to confront contemporary values and the establishment.
In this case, despite making highly uncomfortable viewing, Laing achieved immediate success with them and as they have been widely publicised and exhibited as some of the most significant and incisive commentaries on these matters.
Laing, whom friends say was disillusioned with the American politic, moved to the Highlands to fulfil a childhood dream of rebuilding a castle ruin and he purchased ailing but beautiful Kinkell Castle, near Inverness.
Newly married to his beloved muse and second wife, Galina, they departed New York together and returned to the United Kingdom on the QE2. The happy couple were treated to a send-off party on board the ship with a cake Lichtenstein had decorated with the saltire to celebrate the occasion.
Laing was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1936, the son of a soldier from the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and Enid Foster, originally from Newcastle. Laing’s relationship with his father was absent and his childhood even with his mother was unhappy, but his response to this was to embark on life from scratch with tremendous energy and zeal.
As head of an extensive family, what he achieved in his lifetime is both inspiring and admirable. After training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Laing joined his father’s regiment in 1955 as a young officer.
He soon discovered, however, that the life of a soldier was not for him – and, after a brief flirtation with the idea of becoming a ballet dancer, Laing left the Fusiliers in 1960. After taking art lessons in secret, he enrolled to become an art student at St Martin’s.
After gradual success and finally eminence in America, and a grand retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on his return to the UK, he treated the ruin of Kinkell Castle like a giant work of sculpture, lovingly hand-crafting and repairing it with great expertise and newly acquired skills.
Laing also found time during this period to set up a tapestry workshop, where he taught himself the traditional skills of tapestry weaving. Once content that he had acquired sufficient skills himself, he trained and employed a team of weavers who ran a successful enterprise, and Henry Moore was among a number of famous people who had tapestries made there.
Laing also set up a bronze foundry at Kinkell Castle after experiencing an epiphany at the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.
He sought out and worked under the expert guidance of George Mancini, a retired Italian master in bronze whose family used traditional methods passed down from Roman times.
It was from this particular venture that Laing built an incredible body of sculptural work comprising of both personal and public commissions over a period of 30 years.
His earliest surviving examples of working in bronze can be seen in the Galina Series, a group of portrait bronzes depicting the love of his life. Further significant sculptures include: Four Rugby Players and The Line-out at Twickenham, the home of English rugby.
His frieze of The Wise and Foolish Virgins adorns the Standard Life building in George Street, Edinburgh. Axis Mundi, again for Standard Life, and a memorial to Sir Arthur Conan are also in Edinburgh and there are two editions of The Highlanders at Helmsdale in Sutherland.
Notable portrait commissions carried out by Laing include Sir Paul Getty, Sam Wanamaker, Luciano Pavarotti, Johnny Johnson and Siaka Stevens.
Laing’s work is collected all over the world. Examples can be found in the collections of the National Gallery, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York; and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; and in the Indianapolis Museum.
Other examples of Laing’s work are known to be in the private collections of some of the world’s most famous women, including the supermodels Jerry Hall and Kate Moss, the designer Sadie Frost and the late singer Amy Winehouse.
Laing’s decision to divide his time between London and Kinkell Castle in the last decade of his life created a huge stir in the art world and affected a renaissance period for him that lasted right up to his death.
Friends say this makes the loss of his battle with his illness even more tragic, as the true extent of his renown was just being realised and re-addressed.
Laing died of cancer, and worked right up until his death. He leaves three ex-wives and six much-loved children.
– Gerald Laing, artist, 11 November 1936 – 23 November 2011.