The Glasgow Boys: Artists at Home and Abroad

Tom Birchenough

Magazine issue: 
#1 2011 (30)

The exhibition “Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys. 18801900”, which closed in the middle of January 2011 at London’s Royal Academy, was the first show dedicated to the Scottish artistic movement to be held in more than 40 years. It brought attention back to a group that by around 1900 had become the most internationally-known direction in British art, one that flourished thanks to the adventurous patronage of Britain’s second city, and rebelled against the traditional academicism that had preceded it. As with other artistic movements of the time in northern European countries, including Russia, the impact of France and Impressionism proved crucial.

The last three decades of the 19th century saw the British empire at the height of its power, with Glasgow, the centre of its ship-building industry, by 1900 the fifth largest city in Europe. Its new economic strength saw the rise of magnates who marked their wealth through patronage of the arts — witness Glasgow’s grand city centre buildings, as well as suburban private villas and man sions, and the vibrant architectural style initiated by the likes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh that was at the forefront of the time. As they acquired their collections of the visual and applied arts, Glasgow’s patrons were considerably less hidebound than their contemporaries in London, and more open, in particular, to the exploration of new developments in continental art.

The term “Glasgow Boys” is a loose enough one, describing a group of around 20 young artists, some friends from school or college, some of whom met one another while pursuing their artistic studies in France in the 1870s; by no means were all from Glasgow itself, although the great majority were Scottish. They were reacting against a double conservatism, not only that of the Royal Academy in London, but also the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh (the opposition between Scotland’s two great cities, “aristocratic” Edinburgh and the more “down-to-earth” Glasgow, continues to this day). In painterly terms they were rebelling against a heavy Victorian academicism replete with historical and narrative subjects, often sentimental, frequently combined with decorative elements like heavy varnish that would later come to be known, derogatively, as “glue-pot” art. Depictions of Scottish subjects were similarly stereotypical and sentimental, from scenes from the novels of Sir Walter Scott to Sir Edwin Landseer’s celebrated 1851 picture of a stag “Monarch of the Glen”.

In doing so they became one of the most significant British art movements of the 19th century, following on from the slightly earlier Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose artists were at the height of their fame some 25 years before the Glasgow Boys emerged; however, the Pre-Raphaelites’ initial devotion to a more realistic depiction of nature would gradually develop into a more medievalist style, culminating later in the aestheticism of the Arts and Crafts movement led by William Morris.

For the Glasgow Boys, naturalism, bordering on social realism, emerged as a corrective to such previous tendencies, as they sought to catch Scottish scenes that were often cold and bleak, with accompanying human subjects, whether in portraiture (James Guthrie’s “Old Willie”) or as portrait figures in a landscape (in the same artist’s “A Hind’s Daughter”) that had a similar mood. One clear inspiration for their new direction came from the work of the Barbizon school painters in France, and artists like Jean-Frangois Millet (1814-1875), whose subjects of workers in the countryside escaped any such sentimentality; the slightly later Hague School was another predominantly naturalistic movement that recorded Dutch rural life in similar ways. However, the prime influence on the group was the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), whose “square” brush strokes and handling of space clearly attracted some of the movement’s painters, as did his general avoidance of bright colour and accompanying simplification of form. Works by all such foreign artists were shown frequently enough at public exhibitions in Scotland and England, and could be found in Glasgow private collections of the time.

For the artists, escaping into nature brought a lightening of colours and a greater sense of air. In the years before their first major collective exhibition at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts opened in 1885, small groups of the painters who would form its core would work together over the summers at artists’ colonies in rural locations in Scotland, often on or near the sea, such as St. Andrews, Nairn and Stonehaven, Brig O’Turk and Cockburnspath (James Guthrie’s “Hard at It” from 1883 shows an artist companion painting on the beach at Cockburnspath). The Scottish artists may not have fully followed the example of the French Impressionists by completing works en plein air, but sketches made there, often in oil, would then form the background for later finished compositions. At Brig O’Turk, Arthur Melville painted the light landscape of hills “Brig”, while E.A. Walton’s “Seaside Cottages with Dovecote” catches a summer lightness with a sense of the sea in the distance. As they lived and worked together, a sense of shared approaches to art developed, including development of fine variations in quality of light. Even a much more posed painting — surely with some allegorical overtones — “To Pastures New” (1882-1883) by the 23-year-old Guthrie shows the fruit of the artist’s experience of working out of doors.

For some of the Glasgow Boys, such group activities were already familiar from their time in France in the 1870s. The village of Grez-sur-Loing to the southeast of Paris (itself not far from Barbizon) started to attract artists in the middle of that decade, and by the end of the century had played a role in the careers of figures from as far away as America, Scandinavia and Japan. Five of the Glasgow Boys worked there at different points — Arthur Melville, John Lavery, William Kennedy, Thomas Millie Dow and Alexander Roche. All had studied in Paris, many at the Academie Julian, a school popular with foreign students. The favourite topics of Lavey and others in Paris in the 1880s were described by one contemporary as “Bastien-Lepage and plein air”. Another Scottish visitor to Grez, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, famously described it as: “a pretty and very melancholy village on the plain. A low bridge of many arches choked with sedge; great fields of white and yellow waterlilies ... and about it all such an atmosphere of sadness and slackness.” Though the palettes with which the Scottish artists depicted the village were certainly restrained, Stevenson’s description seems considerably bleaker than the atmosphere depicted in their works.

Back at home in Scotland the main event of the decade for Glasgow was the city’s International Exhibition of 1888 (following two years after a similar event in its rival, Edinburgh); running for six months from May 1888 in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park, it attracted almost six million visitors. It covered industry and fine art (housed in an extravagant Moorish pavilion) and Scottish antiquities (accommodated in a reconstructed medieval castle) — a juxtaposition of architectural styles that looked, appropriately for its time, both back into Scotland’s past and towards the exoticism of abroad. A number of the Glasgow Boys artists contributed work to the ensemble, from a depiction of the domestic (by Lavery) of “The Dutch Cocoa House”, one of the fair’s refreshment pavilions, to allegorical panels showing Industry, Science, Art and Architecture by George Henry, Walton, Guthrie and Lavery. Profits from the International Exhibition went towards construction of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, an enormous grand Victorian structure that opened its doors in 1901; fittingly, the “Pioneering Painters” exhibition ran at Kelvingrove through the summer of 2010 before its transfer to London’s Royal Academy, attracting a record (for that venue) 120,000 viewers over almost six months.

Already a broadening of artistic horizons was becoming apparent among members of the group. Some were experimenting in watercolour, gouache and pastel; Arthur Meville developed his interest in Oriental themes in a brilliant series of watercolours from his travels in Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. Others back at home turned to depicting the leisure habits of the growing middle classes, like lawn tennis and bicycling — imagery that seemed an attempt to cater for the tastes of their potential clients.

The 1890s saw the group’s fame flowering, especially internationally, even as thematically the artists began to move in different directions. The first Glasgow Boys group show outside Scotland, at London’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1890, was much acclaimed, with a number of works moving almost immediately to Munich’s annual International Exhibition. Over the following years their art went on to be shown widely in Europe, then in America in 1895 and 1896, with pictures by some of the artists shown by Sergei Diaghilev in his first show as curator, “German and English Watercolourists”, in St. Petersburg in 1897.

Alexander Benois wrote in his “Memoirs” of the impressions made on him by the work shown there: “.. .this exhibition set Diaghilev the relatively modest task of collecting characteristic works of German and English watercolourists. I was able to see its contents [before the exhibition opened], as the crates with the works had arrived, and we . observed their unpacking with great interest. I even took part in the sorting of the art and the decision on where to hang them in the premises that Seryezha had rented. For his first exhibition our energetic friend had managed to obtain the main two-storey halls of the recently completed museum named after Baron Stiglits. Although it couldn’t be said that it was an ideal location for an art exhibition — it was too luxurious and ‘pretentious’ ... I already knew the German part well . but the English part was absolutely new to me, dominated by the ‘Boys of Glasgow’.

“Seryezha, by then already beginning to give in to the ‘latest sensation’ (or what he often, in his youthful inexperience, took as such), had this time been in London, and believed in the exclusive merits of all these Guthries, Austin-Browns, Laverys, Patersons, and others. He was caught by their smoke-coloured yet lush manner, their special colourfulness, while their inner emptiness could not put him off, as our friend was generally indifferent enough to the ‘poetical beginning’ in art ... he had a tendency (it then seemed as part of his youth, but later it seemed that this was something organic in him) to take such trumpery as good, and interpret what was pleasant or ‘fashionable’ as beauty.”1

But the group’s artistic directions were changing, away from the general naturalism that had inspired the artists a decade earlier. Society portraiture entered the repertoire of many around the turn of the century, and figures like Guthrie, Henry and others would later join the ranks of London’s Royal Academy, the institution against which they had rebelled at the start of their careers.

Most intriguingly — though quite naturally for the time — elements of symbolism appeared, connected often with the then fashionable Japonisme that itself had first appeared in France, before being filtered into England through the works of British artists like James McNeill Whistler, another influence on the Glasgow Boys. In 1893-1894 the artists Henry and E.A. Hornel went on a trip to Japan, financed by, among others, the prominent Glasgow shipowner William Burrrell. Burrell’s enormous art collection was typical of his time, encompassing everything from medieval art, furniture, weapons and armour, Islamic art, artefacts from ancient Egypt and China, through to works of Impressionism and modern sculpture; Burrell gifted it to the city of Glasgow in 1944, though it was only opened to the public, in an internationally acclaimed contemporary building, in 1983.

The exoticism of the East, with its sense of flattened pictorial space and formal simplification, is evident in works such as Henry’s “Japanese Lady with a Fan” (1894), but such stylization had entered Henry and Hornel’s work well before their visit to Japan. Their huge painting “The Druids — Bringing in the Mistletoe” from 1890 is a formalized depiction of Celtic mythology showing priests processing through a sacred grove, their garments and headgear highlighted in gold leaf (this was a decade or so before Viennese symbolist Gustav Klimt became famous for that technique). “The Druids” was the largest work in the “Pioneering Painters” show, and was chosen for its poster; arguably, it was not the best choice for an exhibition of a movement the best- known work of which comprises images of a far smaller, simpler and more naturalistic character.

  1. Alexander Benois. My Memoirs. In 5 books. [Volume 2]. Books IV-V. Moscow, 1990. Pp. 162-163.





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