Lincoln Townley is one of the world’s hottest artists. He’s met Al Pacino, Michael Caine, Keanu Reeves and Charlie Sheen to talk about his portraits of the Hollywood legends.
But, just four years ago, Townley was a drug-addicted strip club boss facing prison.
Working as a marketing exec for Stringfellow’s, the Londoner thought “If I carry on doing so many drugs, I’m going to kill myself.”
“When I was on cocaine, I painted seriously disturbing pictures of screaming faces with blood coming out of their noses”
His art proved to be his escape from addiction – and now Townley charges £40,000 a time for his paintings.
The 43-year-old’s paintings of actors from his acclaimed Icons series. And Townley believes that his ability to empathise with Hollywood’s finest is what sets his work apart.
Townley paints his subjects with a number of lines across their faces – and each line represents a barrier between the actor and the watching public from getting to know the real person behind their image.
One of the first times Townley had to explain the concept was to Al Pacino over dinner.
“Al said to me ‘Explain the portrait’,” recalls Townley. “I told him ‘I paint people how I see them – not as a performer or in one of their roles. The way most people have painted you, Al, is as Tony Montana or from The Godfather. The lines represent the barrier between you and the person looking at you, that we don’t ever really get to know these people.’”
Pacino was suitably impressed. “He loved the concept of the lines,” smiles Townley. “I met him again the following week and he said that his daughter Julie wanted a copy. I sent her one of the same size.”
Here, Townley – who has been married to actress and TV presenter Denise Welch since 2013 – talks Loaded through his remarkable paintings and even more remarkable life.
“Charlie said I’d captured the essence of addiction in my painting of him. I saw someone who’s put himself through the mill, and I found him easy to connect with, having been through it myself.
I ran strip clubs in Soho and I was consumed by the madness of that scene. I enjoyed anything I could get my hands on – drink, drugs, women.
I loved it at first. There was no stopping me. But you get to the point where you either address it and realise ‘This is going to kill me’ or, well, you let it kill you.
“Charlie is surrounded by devil tails and he loved that”
Even when I was on cocaine, I’d always painted. But they were seriously disturbing pictures: mostly screaming faces with blood coming from their noses. I was painting at 4am, then wake up and not know what I’d painted.
I can’t remember much about that time, because I was so busy concentrating on not doing drink and drugs that I was anchoring myself into doing something else. I hoped that art could be an avenue that worked instead of all that hedonism.
All I did for my painting of Charlie was watch footage of his famous rant on YouTube after he left Two And A Half Men. He’s surrounded by devil tails, and he says he loved that.”
“The idea for Icons sprang from painting Russell Brand. I did a Biblical image of Russell and he really liked it. I thought ‘There’s something here…’
When I quit everything in 2012, I wrote a memoir, The Hunger, about my time in Soho. It’s a very extreme and honest book.
But art galleries would literally laugh at me and say ‘Go away, we’re not interested’ when I started trying to show them my work.
“There are a lot of lines with Russell. The image he gives out isn’t what I think is in his mind”
I did my first show a year later, at a Soho gallery called The Riflemaker. The owner basically agreed to display my work because he liked my memoir.
Back then, I was selling my paintings for £3,000 each. I’m full of ‘I told you so’ thoughts about those galleries who now love my work, but I try not to promote that idea too much!
There are a lot of lines in my painting of Russell. He’s such a performer, because the image he wants to give out isn’t particularly what I think is in his mind and the way he really is.”
“I paint in our garage, not a flashy studio. That keeps me grounded. I walk in there wearing layers of jumpers and hats in the freezing cold and I can spend days in there, sleeping on a little gold chair I got from a second-hand sofa store.
“Denise thinks I’m completely insane”
I don’t see anyone, it’s just one strip light and my canvases. When I’m finished and go back to normality, it feels like I imagine it must do when you’re released from solitary confinement. Denise thinks I’m completely insane!
When I told Michael Caine how I paint, at first he asked ‘But don’t you need light as a painter?’ and then he said ‘Actually, I think you create your own light.’ That was an amazing thing for someone of Caine’s stature to say.
I painted Michael from both his 60s days and as he is now, and I tried to capture his life on film. The painting is greenish and oily as that’s what film looks like under a microscope. Michael fucking loved that! He told me he thinks I’m the next Andy Warhol. That’s incredible.”
“Before I got my first show at The Riflemaker, I read up on how to market myself on social media. I’m willing to market myself, and that’s a talent that’s lacking in almost every artist I know.
Luck plays a part in almost any industry, but you need to be smart enough to sense opportunities too.
I got commissioned by BAFTA to paint their six honorary recipients – Harrison Ford, James Corden, Meryl Streep, Orlando Bloom, Sam Mendes and Amy Schumer. I did Amy as quite a Pop Art subject, with the Hollywood sign everywhere.
“I was drunk 80% of the time in Soho, and starting to do drugs in Stringfellow’s”
My work is on display at a lot of Hilton hotels in Britain, and that fact plus getting commissioned by BAFTA highlights how far I’ve come, I suppose.
I was honest about my addiction in my early paintings. They were cathartic.
I should say that Peter Stringfellow was a great boss. He drove me hard, but he’s very fair. Even when I was drunk – and I was drunk 80% of the time I was in Soho – it was ‘What can I juggle next?’ I brought people through the door into Peter’s club, and I tried arguing that what I did outside of that was nothing to do with him.
At first, I could argue that. But then he pointed out that I was starting to do drugs inside the club. I’d lost my focus.
I was getting nicked and thrown inside Charing Cross police station at least once a month. In the end, a magistrate told me I was on my last chance and that if I was charged one more time I’d be going to prison. I couldn’t sweet talk them any more. That was the impetus I needed.”
Keanu Reeves and Slash were my most recent Icons. I’m also painting Matthew McConnaughey, and Harry Dean Stanton has commissioned me to do a portrait of Jack Nicholson.
I recently did John Cleese too. He asked to be drawn in a very comedic pose – there aren’t many lines with John, because I got the impression he really is the way you see him when he’s performing. That’s true of most comedians, I think.
My next series is of music icons and I’d like to paint Denise one day. People come up to Denise like they know her whenever we’re out. They’ll sit next to her on the train, going ‘Hi Denise, how’s it going?’ She’ll politely go ‘Yeah, it’s great!’ and I’m thinking ‘Er, hello…?’
There’d be a lot of lines in Denise’s painting….”