Gerald Laing, who has died of cancer in his Highland castle aged 75, was an internationally renowned sculptor and Pop Art painter whose work was often compared with that of his close friend and near-contemporary Andy Warhol. One of his most iconic paintings was of French actress Brigitte Bardot at the peak of her career in 1962 and just last month he had a London exhibition of paintings and drawings of the late singer Amy Winehouse.
Born in Newcastle to parents who were both of Scottish origin, Laing spent the latter half of his life in 16th-century Kinkell Castle on the Black Isle peninsula near Inverness, which he and his then wife lovingly restored from a crumbling, abandoned ruin they bought for £5000.
The restoration, which they equally lovingly detailed in a fascinating book, became an inspiration to many restorers of old Scottish castles thereafter and the artist found himself informally referred to as Laing of Kinkell.
From his workshop there, he became one of Britain’s finest post-war sculptors, creating works now on display worldwide. These include the Sherlock Holmes statue at Picardy Place, Edinburgh; The Exiles statue at Helmsdale, Sutherland, in memory of those driven out in the Highland Clearances; and the famous four individual rugby players outside Twickenham stadium. Last year, the rugby stadium unveiled another dramatic Laing sculpture inside its gates, this time of a line-out.
Other notable sculptures include the bronze bas-relief twin dragons at London’s Bank Station, the Callanish at Strathclyde University – abstract steel girders known to students as Steelhenge – and, if you look upwards at the Standard Life Assurance building on George Street, Edinburgh, the frieze he called The Wise and Foolish Virgins, bare-breasted bronze beauties including an unmistakeable likeness to singer Patti Smith.
As for his drawings and paintings, many are held in London by the National Gallery, the Tate and the Victoria & Albert; in Scotland by the Scottish Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, where some of his portraits will appear during its post-renovation reopening next week; and in New York by the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney.
Private collectors of Laing’s work include such stars as Kate Moss and Jerry Hall. His large Pop Art-style paintings of Amy Winehouse, painted mostly in 2008, were priced at £125,000 during his recent exhibition in London’s Mayfair.
One of the most famous showed Winehouse kissing Blake Fielder-Civil, her husband at the time. Laing reportedly gave 20% of all sales to the Amy Winehouse rehab project launched by her father Mitch. “My work is concerned with the myth, and portrays her as she appeared to us, the public, via the media,” Laing said. “Now that the drama has ended, and all is quiet, I hope it will be seen as a tribute from one artist to another.”
Previously, Laing attracted extremes of both praise and criticism for his anti-war paintings, inspired by the Iraq war, the London 7/7 bombings and the maltreatment meted out by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. His depiction of the 7/7 bombings shows then Prime Minister Tony Blair next to the wreck of the London bus in Tavistock Square. But when viewed from a different angle, Mr Blair turns into former US president George W Bush.
Relatives of the 7/7 bombings were upset but Laing insisted such themes should not be “brushed under the carpet. Never should MPs on green benches send other people’s fathers, brothers, sisters, and sons to war unless there is a clear military objective. It was absent in Iraq.”
Gerald Ogilvie Laing was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1936. His grandparents on both sides had come from Scotland in the 19th century, from the Forfar and Kilmarnock areas. Gerald went to Newcastle Royal Grammar School and Berkhamsted public school in Hertfordshire before opting for a military career. After attending Sandhurst military training academy, he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by joining the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers as an officer based at Fenham Barracks, Newcastle. He served for a time in Germany and in Belfast in the late 1950s, a decade before the start of the Troubles but still an uneasy assignment for a British soldier.
Realising a military career was not for him, he enrolled at St Martins School of Art in London after which, drawn to New York in 1964, he found himself rubbing shoulders, and partying, with Pop Art painters including Warhol, Roy Liechtenstein and Robert Indiana. The latter, best-known for his LOVE sculptures with a tilted O, notably on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue, took Laing on as a studio assistant.
Laing proceeded to develop his style of large, colourful – sometimes garish – canvases, often based on photographs of celebrities, astronauts or drag-racing cars. Although he may have later been influenced by Warhol, he had already created his famous Brigitte Bardot piece in London in 1962, as well as his Lincoln Convertible painting, commemorating the assassination of President John F Kennedy.
Partly tired of the partying, Laing returned to the UK in 1969 with his new (second wife) Galina Golikova, a German-born New Yorker of Russian, Ukrainian and Mongolian origin, to follow his dream of living – and sculpting – in a castle in the Highlands. The couple married on the QE2 in mid-Atlantic in 1969.
Having found the derelict Kinkell Castle, actually a fortified tower house built in 1594 by the Mackenzies of Gairloch, they set about rebuilding it from scratch, driving to and from Inverness to buy wheelbarrows, cement mixers and the like. He and Galina, who modelled for much of his work notably what he called the Galina Series, wrote a detailed book on the restoration – Kinkell: the Reconstruction of a Scottish Castle.
“He was an incredibly precocious talent,” his son Farquhar told The Herald. “He could draw, paint, sculpt, rebuild motorcycles, cars or castles – and write books about it. But his greatest talent was that he was a great father.”
Gerald Laing died in Kinkell Castle on Wednesday. He is survived by his six children from three marriages.