TWENTY two years ago he was “a Tyneside window cleaner with a passion for painting”, according to one newspaper article of the time. Alexander Millar has come a long way since then.
Firmly established at the commercial end of the art spectrum, his prints and original paintings hang in the homes of celebrities and ordinary people around the world.
Sting, Cheryl Cole and Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant own examples of his work but it strikes a chord with many people who see, in Alexander’s jovial working class figures, echoes of their roots in the industrial north.
A big exhibition of Alexander’s work – his biggest yet, he says – is due to open on March 26 in the capacious exhibition hall of the Great North Museum: Hancock.
The brainchild of his publisher, Washington Green Fine Art Publishing, it puts an artist who has never had any formal training on a pretty impressive pedestal.
Events are planned around the exhibition launch in aid of the Bubble Foundation which helps babies – and their families – suffering from a rare inherited condition called severe combined immune deficiency syndrome (Scid).
Crucial to Alexander’s success is his central, most recognisable character, his “gadgie”. Invariably viewed from behind to give him an Everyman quality, he sports the uniform of the working man of a few decades ago – battered jacket, baggy trousers, sturdy boots, flat cap.
This archetypal miner/labourer/ shipyard worker represents for very many people the father or grandfather or great grandfather of fond memory.
Many men like these used to trudge home from the pit, yard or factory along queasily-lit back lanes to a homely door in a terrace of brick.
In Alexander’s paintings, they are frequently given a jaunty twist, wobbling along on a bike, taking an unsteady swipe at a chasing dog or, more fancifully, cavorting with a red balloon.
The intellectual side of the contemporary art world may recoil but Alexander isn’t going to worry about that. Currently in negotiations to buy an expensive house in Newcastle, he is enjoying the fruits of a success beyond his wildest imagining.
When journalists first beat a path to his door he was living in a council house in Holystone, North Tyneside. He was still cleaning windows but was starting to exhibit some modest landscapes and harbouring artistic ambitions.
He had come to Tyneside from Scotland as a young man to be with the girl he would marry. They had two sons who are now heavily into music, which was also one of Alexander’s early ambitions although he laughs when he says he just wasn’t good enough.
But he’d always liked painting and once saved up £28 to hire a car and go to Manchester where he encountered the work of LS Lowry, another artist who did well out of caricaturing the industrial north.
Looking back, he sees clearly the moments when fortune beckoned. There was, for instance, his problem with backgrounds.
“I used to have the character in a background and I was always wanting to find a way to make him stand out more and I couldn’t get it because I was thinking too much.
“I remember saying to myself that I wanted to get some texture on the canvas so I put some white paint on the palette and just went round the figure, blocking out the background. I said, ‘That’s different’. And I kept it like that. I put it in a gallery in Jesmond and all these old guys were looking at it and one of them said to me, ‘You’ve captured the light of the North East, bonny lad’.
“It was as if the more I took out of a painting, the more people saw in it.”
The appeal of his gadgies became apparent when he exhibited a painting called Six Old Sticks, showing four old men, two with walking sticks, at a gallery near Alston. “I remember the gallery owner saying, ‘Have you got any more like that?’”
Then there was the exhibition in Glasgow where, he sheepishly had to confess, the 40 paintings he had promised had been reduced to 14 because so many people had snapped them up.
“I asked if we should cancel the show but the gallery owner said, ‘No, still come up’. The preview was on a Sunday but when I arrived the Friday before, there was a crowd.” People heard he was coming to hang the paintings, explained the gallery boss.
On the back of this, he was contacted by Glyn Washington, co-founder of Washington Green, one of the country’s two big fine art print publishers. “He took me out for dinner, saying they could do this for me and that for me. After four hours, I said, ‘Just give me the form and I’ll sign it’.”
At this point, says Alexander, he started to understand what he calls “the business side of art”. He started to make money doing what he loved to do – and still loves to do.
His life hasn’t been a breeze, however. Although he recalls a happy childhood in the old mining village of Springside, near Kilmarnock, his father, who worked for British Rail, gave him a hard time. “He was quite academic and I was hopeless and he always told me I was no good. I think my childhood has had a big influence in shaping who I am today. My father never complimented me or encouraged me.”
But the old man suffered Parkinson’s disease in later life and there was some reconciliation. When he and Alexander’s mum died in quick succession, and his marriage broke up, he hit rock bottom.
“You know the building blocks you put in place to establish who you are? It was as if someone had come and knocked them over. I had a huge breakdown. It seemed that everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. I had a bridge which I used to go to because I wanted to end it all.”
It was the wife of an acquaintance who helped to bring him out of it, encouraging him to move to a cottage in the Northumberland countryside where he would go for therapeutic walks. He also read books about the way the mind works.
When he began to get better, he started to paint in a freer, more unconscious way and the work for which he is now best known started to emerge.
“I was talking to Pete Waterman, the record producer, and he was asking me how my career took off. He told me that a lot of singers and songwriters on his books had done their greatest work when their life was going down the drain.”
Now aged 50, Alexander Millar is back on a high. In the studio he shares with fellow Washington Green artist Jeff Rowland in the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle, amid the reek of oils, he shows me some of the large new pictures that will feature in Working Man.
There’s a gadgie on the Tyne Bridge, his arm across the shoulders of a boy, socks round ankles. “That’s me and my grandad,” he says. “But other people will say, ‘That’s my father or my grandfather’. That’s why I don’t show the faces, so people can make them whoever they want to be.”
You can call such pictures sentimental but Alexander will retort: “You get the chance in my pictures to wrap yourself in a warm blanket of nostalgia and that’s why they’re so popular.”
With Alexander’s original paintings fetching upwards of £10,000, it’s likely most of the new work will have been sold by the time the Newcastle exhibition opens. But there’s talk of a life-sized bronze gadgie being installed on a Newcastle street, a permanent reminder of the working men who evidently mean so much to so many people.
Working Man by Alexander Millar will be at Great North Museum: Hancock from March 26 to May 8.
Page 3 - Brushes with the famous >>
Brushes with the famous
SINCE he became something of an art celebrity, Alexander Millar has rubbed shoulders with celebrities from other fields.
He got to know Robert Plant when he bought a home in Shropshire. The pair were neighbours and the rock star bought his work.
In 2009 Alexander was invited to BritWeek, a festival in California set up by Nigel Lythgoe, producer of shows including American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, and a former British Consul-General in Los Angeles, Bob Pierce.
It is a well-heeled celebration of British connections with California, including music, comedy and luxury goods.
Alexander went and had a ball. He says he was talking to Tony Blair, who had been laughing at his decision to wear a kilt, when Mr Lythgoe said: "Mr Millar, I’m a great fan of yours."
He had seen Alexander’s painting of two gadgies performing the famous dance with which Morecambe and Wise signed off their TV shows. The painting was called Bring Me Sunshine, in homage to the dance and song.
Recalls the artist: "He said, ‘I invented that dance when I did the choreography for Morecambe and Wise. Would you mind awfully?’
"I had to say ‘Excuse me’ to Tony Blair to do the dance with Nigel Lythgoe."
Afterwards Alexander did a sketch of gadgies doing the same dance, had it framed and presented it to the one-time Young Generation dancer.
Alexander, still pinching himself as a former window cleaner made good, also laughed and chatted with Eric Idle, Jacqueline Bissett and Slumdog Millionaire star Anil Kapoor.