Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880–1900
As a major exhibition of work by the Glasgow Boys takes centre stage at Kelvingrove, Liz Shannon assesses their contemporary impact and legacy
After 40 years, the Glasgow Boys are finally to be the subject of a major exhibition in the Dear Green Place. But don’t let the group’s name mislead you. Jean Walsh, the exhibition’s co-curator, explains: ‘The Glasgow Boys didn’t all attend Glasgow School of Art – some weren’t even Scottish – but they did all have studios in the city. They painted outdoors at various places in Scotland during the summer and returned to Glasgow in the winter. There was great friendship, and a regular exchange of ideas, between most of the members of the group.’
This potential blockbuster contains 140 works by painters such as Joseph Crawhall, John Lavery, James Guthrie, George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel, as well as work by Bessie McNicol, the only female artist closely associated with the group. The exhibition includes old favourites from Scottish collections alongside lesser-known pictures borrowed from private collectors and major international institutions: the selection is so vast that Kelvingrove’s temporary exhibition space has had to be extended to include all the works.
While some of the Glasgow Boys’ paintings may now appear rather tame and bucolic, their work had a huge contemporary impact. ‘They bucked the trend in Scottish art at the time,’ says Walsh, ‘which involved archetypes such as stags or Highland landscapes depicted in fine detail. The Glasgow Boys focused on more naturalistic subject matter, such as agricultural workers in the Lowlands. Their style was based upon the work of French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, who used broad, square brushstrokes.’
But realist rural scenes were not the only type of work that the Glasgow Boys produced, as Walsh explains. ‘The Glasgow Boys’ later works were often symbolist in style. They used gold paint, prefiguring Klimt, and anticipated Charles Rennie Mackintosh through the use of single female figures and a love of pattern. Henry and Hornel’s ‘The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe’ was exhibited in Munich and took the art world by storm.’
Despite this eventual international recognition, the Glasgow Boys initially encountered resistance from London and Edinburgh’s Royal Academies of Art, but were supported by Glasgow’s lively art market. Art dealer Alexander Reid and collectors William Burrell and James Forbes Wright were among those who collected works by the group. There was a specific attraction to the Glasgow Boys’ work for many collectors, as Walsh explains: ‘Many commercial people had their roots in rural communities, and so the subject matter appealed to them, as well as the nostalgia factor.’ However, the group were not entirely beholden to Scottish subject matter, as the exhibition will demonstrate. ‘Burrell helped pay for Henry and Hornel to go to Japan,’ says Walsh, ‘while Arthur Melville spent some time in Spain. They were quite well travelled.’
Although they fell out of fashion in the 1950s and 60s, the Glasgow Boys attracted a new audience in the following decades. This new exhibition will highlight the group’s significance, particularly in relation to the international success of subsequent generations of Scottish art. ‘The Boys’ international reputation made it much easier for Mackintosh and other Scottish artists to launch their work in Europe. It gave them confidence. In that sense, the Glasgow Boys blazed a trail.’
Pioneery Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880–1900, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Fri 9 Apr–Mon 27 Sep.