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January 10, 2011

A minister's egg of an exhibition but parts of it are excellent: Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880 - 1900 at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880 - 1900
Royal Academy, London
30 October 2010 - 23 January 2011
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

It is difficult to believe that the seedy, subsidised, shirkers' Glasgow of today was once "the second city of the Empire", way ahead even of Sydney, Toronto and Bombay and a global trader that supplied the entire world with its ships and locomotives. Edinburgh was the capital but Glasgow accumulated it.

Scotland stands not where it did, neither on the banks of the Clyde nor in the banks of Edinburgh. When Glasgow was named a European city of culture along with Liverpool and Londonderry it raised chuckles from Kilkenny to Kiev. It is even funnier to note that many of the paintings in the exhibition have been lent by the Glasgow department of "Culture and Sport", where no doubt Rangers painters battle Celtic ones with "a tube of white lead and a punch in the head", prowling the studios armed with malky and palette, the sword and shield of the local culture-sporters.

Yet in the 1880s and 1890s Glasgow produced a fascinating school of innovative artists, the Glasgow Boys, patronized by the "new money" capitalists of that no mean city. Both artists and patrons wanted to overtake and repudiate Edinburgh, a city whose art was as much trapped in the past as its stuffy men of the law courts, those writers to the signet, hanging judges and assorted advocates, together with the pompous ordained functionaries of "the auld kirk, the cauld kirk, the kirk without the people".

The Glasgow Boys were innovators but not radicals. Like today's "critical" theorists they were dressed in last year's French fashions and way behind the Impressionists and their successors. Their French inspiration was Jules Bastien-Lepage. What they stood for was a robust honest naturalism from which all hint of Scottish sentimentality had been eliminated. There were to be no more faithful ghillies seeking stags on crags, no more kilted Highlanders dying heroically in Scotland's colonial wars; the Balmoralized Prince Albert must have turned in his grave.

The theme of rural Scotland, though, remained strong, for it appealed to those dominant, wealthy, painting-buying entrepreneurs who everyday braved their way through the pollution, sordid streets and clanging factories of Glasgow to bark orders at their workers. Rural simplicity and honest, hardy teuchters were a welcome contrast to this and a hint of earlier less stressful times. But the artists sought realism, not contrived emotion.

The best among them was James Guthrie. The careful alignment of the heads in A Funeral Service in the Highlands, 1881-2, and in To Pastures New, 1882-3, and his skilled choice of palette mark him out as a fine artist. The heads of the men with doffed black hats at the funeral, some bald, some grey, some weathered lie below a glum Scottish sky but well outlined against a thin line of brightness along the horizon. A puzzled dog and the wee freeze of the snowy ground add other fine touches. The white haired, pink faced minister is backed by a dark door but behind his black frock coat is the adjoining white-washed wall.

Pastures New shows a goose-girl driving her gaggle before her. The plump white geese walk in a row with their beaks in line against the sky. Yet Guthrie has the sense to have one goose bend its neck below the skyline to reinforce the line by breaking it.

Yet even Guthrie could succumb to sentiment, possibly for the bawbees it brought. It is not necessary to describe Old Willie: The Village Worthy, 1886, for the title tells it all. Oor ain auld Wullie wi' his white side whiskers and the strangely closed mouth of the toothless. He could have been taken from a mocking Punch cartoon of the time for the artist in search of the fake picturesque was one of their cartoonists' favourite targets. Yet even here Guthrie still shows his gift for alignment and contrast.

It is sad to note that in the early twentieth century Guthrie really did sell out and painted sub-Singer-Sargent full-length society portraits of the Glasgow crachach, as in Harriet Lady Findlay, 1905. She was the English wife of Scotsman Sir John Ritchie Findlay Bt. and was the daughter of an English baronet and the grand-daughter of another. Sir John too did his best to be elevated, for he had been sent to Harrow and Balliol to lose the last of the rough Scottish speech of his father. He was part of Edwardian high society and had an accent, a title and a portraited wife, to prove it. Guthrie himself was knighted and spent the last decades of his life on portraits of the unco' rich. They had all entered that heaven of the Scotsman on the make, the Sassenach establishment. Money giveth and money taketh away.

Much of the work of the other Glaswegians is best classified as "talented amateur". Sir John Lavery's The Tennis Party, 1885, and A Rally, 1885, are scenes of bourgeois jollity done for the class that provided the players. In A Rally, a strong and substantial young lady charges towards the net and heftily smashes her male opponent's ball. As she does so, her substantial breasts swing forward with enough force to stun a passing blue chickadee or even kill a sparrow. The male spectator will not think for one moment about her prowess at tennis but about mass, velocity, angular momentum, kinetic energy and of women as solid objects moving through space according to the laws of classical mechanics.

For the masculine mind, system is everything and it is here that Lavery, given his commitment to realism, gets it wrong. He didn't really understand shutter-speed. The sole interest of these paintings is as social history - the Victorian oddity of women taking vigorous exercise while dressed in voluminous multiple petticoats, a corset to constrain the waist into painful waspishness and a heavily-decorated hat held on with suitor repelling hatpins. I promise never again to laugh at the Iranian women's rugby team.

The only diamonds among these dull pebbles come from those are those influenced by Whistler rather than Glasgow boyishness. George Henry's Sundown or River Landscape by Moonlight, 1887, makes Whistler blowing good use of the polluted air of Glasgow. William Kennedy's Stirling Station, 1887, is smoke and speed towards the row of bright lamps that mark the platform. Kennedy could have been an Impressionist but he could not resist a foreground of bright white dog, a tumble of clearly delineated abandoned luggage, a woman muffled against the cold and a Highlander open to it.

Stirling is a station of the north but Kennedy's painting is more Frith than Monet. C'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas la Gare du Nord.

Trumping the horrors of sold out and played out society portraitists Sir James Guthrie and Sir John Lavery of Glasgow, that city of dreadful knights, is E. A. Walton's wonderful Portrait of Joseph Crawhall, 1884. Crawhall is a dark figure set against a mass of lighter frames and square lines by an artist who knew when to make sharp and when to blur, when to fragment his squares and when to consolidate. A Glasgow boy by a Glasgow boy that is not Glasgow Boy in style. What could be better?

A minister's egg of an exhibition but parts of it are excellent.

Christie Davies' research on late nineteenth century Scottish society may be found in Informationes Theologiae Europae: Internationales Oekumenisches Jahrbuch fuer Theologie, 2000. As a boy he greatly enjoyed doing his geology fieldwork in the cuttings and quarries around Glasgow, no mean city and no mean landscapes.


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Regarding the Learned Professor’s comment on “A Rally”,

Firstly, his articles elsewhere on the SAU blog suggest that he has gorged himself on porn, both ‘straight’ and ‘gay’, and has thereby stultified his appetite;

Secondly, what does he mean by “Classical Mechanics”? It appears he is referring to earlier Newtonian Mechanics. My own observation of Olympic gymnastics would suggest that the more advanced Analytical Mechanics is more appropriate.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at January 18, 2011 06:00 PM
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Your insults aimed at Glasgow are very funny.
My postcode in Glasgow has the most highly educated residents in the whole of the UK; a study a couple of years back found that the the people who live around here held the most and highest academic qualifications.

Posted by: Debby Raven at February 8, 2011 02:36 PM
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