Glasgow boys

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

The loose confederation of late 19th century artists known as the Glasgow Boys was just one aspect of Glaswegian culture that didn’t get a look-in when Scotland’s largest city was made European City of Culture for 1990.

 

Writing about the event 22 years later in his controversial essay Settlers and Colonists (2012), the Glaswegian writer and artist Alasdair Gray castigated the city’s councillors and their City of Culture managers for ignoring the Glasgow Boys and for also ignoring local theatrical writers, producers and performers like Archie Hind, Peter McDougall, John Byrne, David Hayman and Billy Connolly:  “…these transient administrators knew or cared nothing for these local achievements and were employed by equally ignorant or careless town councillors.  To both sorts the city’s past was mainly rumours of gang violence and radical Socialism, both of which should be forgotten.  New Labour wanted the City of Culture to attract foreign tourists and investors, so performances and shows were brought from outside Scotland.  Hardly anything Glaswegian was presented in Glasgow’s Year of Culture.”

 

Shortly before Gray penned Settlers and Colonists, the Glasgow Boys at least received a permanent showcase in the city where their circle had come into being.  In 2011, a permanent room dedicated to them and displaying more than 60 of their paintings was established at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.  This came in the wake of a hugely successful exhibition called Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880-1900 held at Kelvingrove and at London’s Royal Academy in 2010, which, incidentally, was the first exhibition devoted to them for more than 40 years.

 

According to a BBC news article written in 2011, the Glasgow Boys consisted of 23 artists, although their Wikipedia entry lists only 22 names.  (Who was that unlucky, unnamed 23rd Glasgow Boy, I wonder?)  In their paintings, they were motivated by a desire for realism and naturalism, for depicting what they really saw in the world around them – being stylised in terms of lighting, colour and symbolism if necessary, but without being formulaic.  This put them at loggerheads with the Scottish art establishment of the time, centred around Glasgow’s age-old rival, Edinburgh.  At the same time, their influences extended far beyond Scotland’s borders.  These included the Dutch impressionists, French realists and the general late 19th-century fad for all things Oriental.

 

At the end of last year, I got a chance to explore the Glasgow Boys Gallery at Kelvingrove.  Here are what I thought were its highlights.

 

Sir William Guthrie painted Old Willie – The Village Worthy (1886) featured at the top of this entry.  This practically acts as a manifesto for the Glasgow Boys, for instead of creating a flattering portraiture of somebody against a lush, comfortable background, Guthrie simply paints an old fellow in his everyday clothes against a common whitewashed wall and makes no effort to disguise or soften the weather-beaten aspect of his features.  Guthrie was also responsible for A Highland Funeral.  Depicting a group of black-clad mourners gathered around the doorway of the deceased, it’s about as bleak and Calvinistic a work as you can find in Scottish art.  Born in Greenock, Guthrie was the son of an evangelical church minister, so he probably knew this world well.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

William Kennedy led a geographically varied life, spending time in the Scottish towns of Paisley and Stirling, in Paris, in Berkshire in England, and finally in Tangier.  Whilst living in Stirling he painted Stirling Station (1887-88), capturing the place in a dreamy purple twilight (which probably doesn’t come out very well in the illustration I’ve provided below).

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Moving to more exotic subjects, George Henry’s Japanese Lady with a Fan (1894) is one of many works by this Ayrshire-born painter to have a Japanese theme.  Indeed, Henry and his friend and fellow Glasgow Boy Edward Atkinson (E.A.) Hornel spent a year-and-a-half in Japan in the early 1890s.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Also in Kelvingrove is the mystical painting The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890), which I’ve seen attributed to George Henry with Hornel cited as an influence, but also seen described as a collaboration between Henry and Hornel.  If memory serves me correctly, this wasn’t actually on display in the Glasgow Boys Gallery when I was there.  Rather, it’d been squirrelled down to the basement where there was a temporary exhibition in progress, Alphonse Mucha – In Quest of Beauty.  The exhibition not only covered Mucha’s work but also looked at that of his contemporaries and possible influences, and I suppose there is something Mucha-esque about The Druids, in its content if not so much in its execution.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Born in Australia but brought up in Kirkcudbright, E.A. Hornel himself is the painter of the decorous and languid The Coming of Spring (1899).

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

I have to say The Coming of Spring is a contrast to another Hornel painting on display, The Brownie of Blednoch (1889), which was inspired by a poem written by William Nicholson in 1825.  The brownie of the title is a fearsome thing with grey-brown skin, Spock ears, a black, crooked mouth like one on an unlit Halloween lantern, eyes that resemble poached eggs and a beard that’s as long, swirling and tentacled as an octopus. But the sheep in the rocky landscape behind it seem strangely untroubled by its presence.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum