on 8 October 2010
The major exhibition in Glasgow this year of The Glasgow Boys, a group of artists painting in the late 19th Century, has restimulated interest in their work. The exhibition, which was at Kelvingrove Museum for several months, has now moved to London's Royal Academy. Roger Billcliffe's eponymously titled tome on The Glasgow Boys was first published in 1985, when it received the Scottish Arts Council Book Award, and was republished in 2008 with many more colour plates.
It is the sumptuous and generous number of illustrations that first struck me about this volume. There are 284 of them, the vast majority in gorgeous blazing colour, many of them large enough to discern detail. It's one of those art books you just want to gaze at, and one reason why e books will never supplant the paper version.
Billcliffe has a list of impressive qualifications to his name. He used to lecture at Glasgow University, is a former Keeper of the University Art Collection, an ex Keeper of Fine Arts at Glasgow Art Gallery, and was Director of the Fine Art Society. He also runs a fabulous art gallery in Glasgow, the Roger Billcliffe Gallery in Blythswood Street, a multi-floored Victorian mansion where even the winding staircases are stuffed with beautiful art.
Billcliffe's balance between prose and pictures in the book is perfect, being around 50:50. With almost 300 pages at a size 25% larger than A4, this means a lot of information. But when the writing refers so frequently to illustrations, as here, reading the history of the Boys is never dry, being instead a delight where every few sentences are interspersed with references to another fabulous picture.
After a short overview of Glasgow's role in the world in the middle to late nineteeth century, Billcliffe moves on to outline the alliances that built up between disparate groups of artists working in or near Glasgow and born in the second half of the 1800s. Black and white photographs of the individuals help to bring the characters alive, as do excerpts from existing documents of the day written by the more outspoken of the artists. Some of these quotes would not be out of place today, as this account of studying art in an atelier in Paris by James Paterson, published in the Scottish Art Review in 1888:
`To the student of human nature the nondescript gathering of nationalities and `types' will be ever interesting. The flaneur, who looks in occasionally to see what is being done by others...; the blageur who has always some tomfoolery in hand; the jeune homme arrive' , who had a third-class medal in last Salon, and gives himself airs accordingly..., while no less conspicuous will be the pet of the studio, whose studies it is openly hinted surpass the work of the maitre, who has nearly attained the Grand Prix de Rome, and will probably continue to produce accomplished technical studies which may become fashionable but can never become real art.'
From Billcliffe's account it becomes clear that the artists who made up the loose grouping The Glasgow Boys almost all had in common a rejection of the predominant themes in art of the day, especially `gluepot' paintings characterised by heavy use of the brown tarry megilp, and overtly sentimental representations of imagined events in history or in the lives of the working classes. They also rejected the bland, stilted depictions of landscapes practiced widely in the 1860s. Many of the Boys were also initially excluded by the establishment, who refused to allow them entry to The Glasgow Art Club. Friendships built up, notably between Paterson and Macgregor, Guthrie, Walton and Crawhall, Henry and Hornel, and Lavery, Kennedy, Roche and Millie Dow. Some of these artists were not Glasweigan by birth - Lavery, for example, was born in Belfast, and Melville was an Edinburgh man. But the artists all shared influences and ideas and many of them travelled and painted together.
Billcliffe is meticulous in pointing out the influences the Boys had from France, in particular Jules Bastien-Lepage. Some of the latter's astonishingly lifelike paintings of rural peasants (in whose community the artist immersed himself) are reproduced here and many of their characteristics were echoed by The Boys for decades, in particular his way of depicting depth by painting the foreground in great detail and changing to a much softer, more impressionistic technique for the distant background. Bastein-Lepage's interest in the non-sentimentalised lives of the ordinary country working classes rubbed off on The Boys. Incredibly, Bastien-Lepage, and thus his Glasgow Boy followers, were critically slammed in some quarters for not oozing the patronizing sentiment found in many populist paintings of the time.
Another great influence on the boys was Stott from Oldham, whose horizontal lines and riverscapes some of the Boys would emulate. Stott himself was influenced by Bastien-Lepage; the same capturing of space by placing a detailed tree or long rushes in the foreground to contrast with the more blurred images in the distance. Stott's wonderful, shimmery paintings of rivers reflecting country houses, fringed by English countryside, with rural figures unselfconsciously basking in the sunlight are breathtaking, and obviously made an impression on the Boys.
Billcliffe takes the reader through the movements and developments of the Boys: their adoption of the Plein Air technique of painting outside, their travels to places which inspired them such as Crowland, Northumberland and Surrey in England, Stonehaven, Brig o' Turk or Rosneath in Scotland, and Grez in France. Because of their friendships they would often travel in small groups, and even those that didn't hang around together saw the others' works in the annual exhibitions at the Glasgow Institute. This resulted in paintings by different members of the group of similar subjects and places, such as the cabbage gardens of rural workers chosen by Melville, Guthrie, Henry and Spence. Progress in the individuals' work are plain to see from the illustrations, and it is fascinating to see the maturation and development occurring over the years. The improvement in Guthrie's figure drawing which led eventually to masterpieces like To Pastures New, Schoolmates and In the Orchard is mesmerising, as is his move from dark, sombre colours - which had their place, in his groundbreaking A Funeral Servive in the Highlands - to sunlight and a broader, cheerier palette.
The influence of exploring further afield is also evident. Melville was drawn to Asia and Africa, and his majestic watercolours of a Turkish Bath and a Pasha awaiting meetings with his people on an exotic carpet in a sun-drenched courtyard, are a testament to the power of travel to inspire. Hornel and Henry ventured to Japan and were captivated by its culture and women, producing some stunning paintings of Japanese women and geishas.
Among the joys of the work of the Glasgow Boys is their use of colour, light, dappled sunshine, shadow, figures going about their ordinary lives and nature in its glory. All are evident here. Even simple subjects, such as the cows Crawhall was drawn to, are injected with tones of warmth and harmony, splodges of blues and reds that would not be out of place on the fauvists' brushes appearing to indicate shading or emphasise shadow.
As the years go by, the Boys tried new subjects.In the mid to late 1880s artists like Lavery moved to depicting the middle classes in their new pursuits - tennis and tricycles, which at the time were quite novel pastimes for women. Some of the other artists moved in different directions - a symbolism entered the work of some, others moved to portrait painting.
Billcliffe is always a highly intelligent and eloquent teacher and has structured the large amount of material in a logical and easy to digest format. His writing is stimulating and enlightening without ever over-burdening the reader, and everything that he says about the art is verifiable from the paintings. This is immensely refreshing - there is none of the fanciful egotism one sometimes sees in writing about art, where motives and meanings are imagined where none are readily apparent.
This is a beautiful book, one that any art lover will pore over lovingly, and it clarifies the history of an art movement that has long been unfairly sidelined. Whether you choose to dip in and out of the writing and wonder, enraptured, at the lush plates, or immerse and enthrall yourself in full by reading all of the fascinating history of these young men who sought to change the stifling art world of the late nineteeth century, it is an essential buy for anyone who values the visual arts.