I get up about 7.30 and go down to the kitchen to say hello to Asgard. He’s a Scottish deerhound, so he’s a big dog. His nose is the same level as the kitchen table, but he’s very good — he knows better than to steal anything off it. While I’ve got the kettle on and the porridge is cooking on the Aga, I’ll feed him, give him a massage and generally make a fuss of him. I get the oats from the working water mill in Blair Atholl. I like the pinhead oats the best and I like to leave them soaking overnight. After that I’ll make some coffee and maybe have a bit of multi-grain toast and marmalade.
My main home is not far from Inverness, on the western end of Black Isle, overlooking the Cromarty Firth. It’s a turreted medieval tower house, with two spiral stone staircases, arrow-slit windows, gun loops and stone walls. When I look out of my kitchen window beyond the row of limes, and the oak, chestnut and sycamore further afield, I can see the forests, bogland and snow-capped peaks of Ben Wyvis. The landscape is stark and so beautifully bleak at this time of year, with dramatic contrasts of colour and contours everywhere you look. The locals always say the lower mountains look like the silhouette of a woman who has been asleep for centuries — her head at one end of the panorama and her feet at the other. An inspiring setting for any artist.
I work best in the mornings, so by 9 I’m usually in my studio, which is in a building I had built next door to accommodate both my sculpture and my paintings. In the last few years my mind’s been occupied by two subjects, one of them being the Iraq war. I just felt I had to express my own shock and anger at what’s been going on out there. One of my paintings features Blair with his all-too-familiar grin and the wreckage of the blown-up London bus behind him. Another shows a soldier dropping cluster bombs on two decapitated Iraqi soldiers. In a third, a smug-looking Bush stands on a red carpet, oblivious to the flames of Baghdad engulfing the landscape. Art can be such a powerful force in that sense. Works like Picasso’s Guernica and Otto Dix’s war paintings can remind us of the senseless periods in our history.
I stop for lunch about 1. I’ll have a tomato salad, maybe followed by sardines on toast, smoked oysters, or bread and a soft creamy cheese — langherino or caprino. Then I might return to the studio or turn my attention to something that needs fixing in the house or the grounds. The castle was built in 1594 — seven years after Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded, so a turbulent time in this country’s bloody history. For me, though, owning a tower or a castle was something I’d dreamt about as a kid. I loved all the medieval stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. No doubt it was a form of escapism from a rather unpleasant childhood in Newcastle upon Tyne, when I rarely saw my father and by 16 had signed up for the army.
The other subject that fascinates me is today’s obsession with celebrity culture. It says a lot about the state of our society, and of course it produces amazing images. When I saw a photo of Amy Winehouse kissing her husband, it was so passionate, so moving, it made me think of Rodin’s marble sculpture The Kiss. I just had to capture it. As with the war series, I’m using the monochrome dot-matrix and bright colours of pop art, a style I first fell in love with back in the early 1960s when, after seven years of army life,
I left to follow my true calling as an artist at St Martin’s. There I became obsessed with the American dream and did a series of paintings inspired by the iconic images of stars like Bardot and Harlow. To my surprise, they were a huge hit — overnight I was having sellout shows in New York and meeting the likes of Andy Warhol. Before long, I’d moved out there.
By the end of the 1960s, though, I’d become disillusioned with the US — the drugs, the sexual freedoms, the wars, the assassinations — and I came back here searching for a simpler way of life. I turned my back on pop art, too, turning to sculpture in search of higher ideals of public art and new inspirations. I’d also become a father and married my second wife, Galina.
I usually stop to eat at about 8. Dinner can vary from egg on toast to dover sole, broccoli and asparagus.
If friends are coming round I’ll do something like roast pigeon with bacon and roast potatoes. I like a couple of glasses of wine at night and I’ll usually head up to the Great Hall. It’s probably my favourite room, full of atmosphere, with high oak-beam ceilings, black Caithness slabs and a roaring log fire. If it’s just me and Asgard, I’ll sit by the fire with a book, loving nothing more than the howling wind and the crackle of the logs. Then I’ll make my way up to bed.
My work has been varied, and so has my life — full of ups and downs; on top of the world one minute, descending into alcoholism the next. But life is what you make of it, and when you have the confidence to go out and follow your dreams it can take you on an incredible journey. Happily for me, it’s a journey I’m still on.
Three exhibitions of Gerald Laing’s work begin in London on February 27, at the Fine Art Society, the Sims Reed Gallery and the Mayor Gallery