Issue Number: 108
As the Glasgow Boys venture down south to the Royal Academy, broadcaster Andrew Marr revisits the paintings of his youth which both reflected his Scottish roots and rivalled their French Impressionist counterparts
George Henry, 'A Galloway Landscape', 1889. Oil on canvas, 121.9 X 152.4 cm. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Culture and Sport Glasgow. Given by The Trustees of Sir Thomas Dunlop 1940 For a middle-class Scottish boy who loved paintings, they seemed to be everywhere. In the town art galleries, on postcards, in private homes, they crowded round on all sides, these instantly recognisable, thick-impasto pictures by Edward Hornel and George Henry, clotted with colour; the willowy elegant Laverys and the smack-in-the-eye-fresh Melvilles and Crawhalls.
Whether of peasant girls, broad valleys, exotic scenes from Japan or North Africa, or seascapes, these pictures seemed somehow comforting and wholesome, thick-grained, well made and mostly rooted in the Scottish soil and character. These were our familiar local painters, the ones who felt like family and were enjoyed, particularly, by older people who found the next generation of fauve-mimicking colourists a bit much. Glasgow Boys: the very term is a deflating, half-amused put-down. It’s in the terrible Scottish tradition of ‘Ah kent his faither’ (translation: I knew his dad – in other words, he might put on airs, he might seem important, but I know where the little runt came from).
Everything about the above account now feels wrong. The Boys were, for a start, not all from Glasgow, nor even all from Scotland. They were an establishment-rejecting brotherhood, which came together for a short but brilliant period before arcing off in different directions. One of the photographs included in the catalogue to the RA exhibition ‘Pioneering Painters: the Glasgow Boys 1880-1900’ has four of them sprawled on the ground – leery, cocky, ambitious art soldiers ready to take on all comers. Nor were they localists.
They might take Scottish scenes and characters but they felt starved by the provincial, twee traditions of Victorian Scottish art. They looked out, and learned abroad – from the French, the Dutch and the Japanese. It’s true that they benefited from rich Scottish patrons and were championed by Scottish critics. When Hornel and Henry went to Yokohama, they were funded by the Glasgow art dealer Alexander Reid (subject of a superb portrait by Van Gogh in 1887). But the patriotic boosting mostly came late in the day. To start with, even Glasgow – never mind Edinburgh or London – did its best to shut them out.
I am not even sure, thinking of this long-overdue exhibition, that they benefit any longer from being classed as a single group. The more you look, the more you see a fast-moving series of stories: the Scottish open-air landscapes, brimming with freshness; the peasant studies; the studiously casual (and to my eye, stagey) scenes of love and yearning at Grez-sur-Loing; the Japonaiseries; the street paintings of Glasgow and its suburbs. There were clusters of people working in different places at different times, and heading in subtly different directions.
One of the achievements in the hang of this exhibition is to separate out the simple catch-all ‘Glasgow Boys’ into something more interesting. This was not a single symphony, but movements. And, it must be said, by composers who were not equally good. To me there are three pre-eminent painters: James Guthrie, the Scottish incarnation of French realism who took the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage further, giving 20th-century Scots unforgettable images of the country and people we were leaving behind; the sardonic, witty Irishman John Lavery, displayed in the exhibition at his best before he went on to be a facile society painter; and the one-time clerk, George Henry, whose twists and games of perspective and focus have been catching out and entrancing viewers for 120 years.
John Lavery, 'The Tennis Party', 1885. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 183 cm. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections. Courtesy of Felix Rosenstiel’s Widow and Son Ltd, London, on behalf of the Estate of Sir John Lavery
Just behind them are most of the rest: the stocky E. A. Hornel, friend and co-conspirator with Henry; Arthur Melville of the glowing, shimmering watercolours; Joseph Crawhall with his light, perfect gouache-on-canvas ducks, capturing by chance more of the atmosphere of Japanese art than its slavish followers; and the great, great landscapes of James Paterson.
Guthrie is generously represented in the exhibition, and rightly so. His earthy agricultural art is technically impressive, with those squarish slabs of pigment and classic northern European tones. But the great thing is that tiny, narrow squeak away from sentimentality he manages to find, whether in the Courbet-like austerity of his early painting of a Highland funeral, or the fearlessly direct, frank gaze of a farm labourer’s child in A Hind’s Daughter (1883). In To Pastures New (1882-83) the Lincolnshire goose-girl, like the cabbage-cutting daughter, is going about her business in a bright sharp light. And of the landscapes in the exhibition, it is the light in James Paterson’s Moniaive (1885-1886) and Autumn in Glencairn (1887) that raises them so high above most British painting of the time. These are pictures you can return to time and again.
The single painting in the show that means most to me, however, is George Henry’s A Galloway Landscape of 1889, a view of a hillside, with cattle. A truly great painting is endlessly mysterious and never quite reveals its secret. The flatness, the hot haze of umbers, pinks and yellow-olive, and the radical design of the dark burn or small river in the foreground, added by the artist to the ‘real’ view, can be continuously analysed. Perhaps Henry is nodding to Hokusai, yet there is also something of the Dutch Golden Age, and something, too, of the late landscape pastels of Degas, but in the end it’s a mystery, and I know of no painting that is like it.
George Henry, 'Japanese Lady with a Fan', 1894. Oil on canvas, 61 x 40.6 cm. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museums, Culture and Sport Glasgow on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Given by Mrs MD Lindsay in memory of Col Barclay Shaw, 1927 If you suspect it was a fluke, just look at the set-piece he did jointly with Hornel, The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890) with a similarly shoved-up perspective (although to me the upper third of that picture is more satisfactory than the exotic focal centre, which is reminiscent of folktale-following Russian art of the time). Henry’s early painting, Noon, and The Hedgecutter (both 1885) and the later Japanese Lady with a Fan, of 1894 are also not to be missed.
John Lavery painted too much, and for too many patrons, and the Glasgow pictures look forward to the less successful ‘public’ and ‘society’ art that would follow later on. But The Tennis Party (1885) is a big achievement, again unlike anything else. I used to go to say hello to it – a private ritual – every time I was in Aberdeen. Who else at the time was using such horizontals, with such wit? There is something of Caillebotte and a hint of Manet, which you certainly cannot say about later Laverys.
That short selection – and don’t leave the show without spending a few minutes in front of Joseph Crawhall’s The White Drake (c.1895) – will irritate many, who have other favourites. But it gives a sense of the variety of painting made over just a few years, at a time when Glasgow was at the height of her vigour, optimism and power and looking outwards for inspiration – to France, to Japan, to Germany.
In art history, we sometimes focus too intently on the single main thrust of a simple story, in this case the triumph of the French Impressionists, and lose sight of other stories which at the time seemed almost as important. This tale is one of them: its protagonists bold, cocky and ambitious painters who felt second to no-one at all. They would be pleased, and not at all surprised, to find themselves back at the RA.