The Glasgow boys may have set out to find a new path in art and made waves during the late Victorian era but a hundred years later they have found their way right into the heart of popular taste and the current exhibition of their work at the Royal Academy is both beautiful and accessible. The exhibition catalogue has completely sold out and there were few copies of a lovely hardback book about the Glasgow Boys in the shop left- that says it all.
The Glasgow boys were a loosely knit group of like minded, but different, artists who were looking for a new style, mostly trained in Glasgow and they chose to exhibit there (and in London) rather than within the elitist atmosphere of the Edinburgh art establishment. Glasgow was a growing, vibrant industrial city which was a more open environment for artists who wanted to be innovative. They often took everyday country life as their subject. They were passionate about naturalism and realism but at the same time there is a strong sense of design in their work and a loose paint technique which was not impressionistic but very striking in its day as their plein air experiments looked at light in a fresh way and used a strong design sense to liberate the world from the dull brown formal paintings which filled galleries at the time. Members of the group travelled to Spain, France, North Africa and Japan and everything that they saw fed into their work. Their influences were centred around Japanese prints, as well as the work of Jules Bastien Le Page, Millet, and Whistler and all of these influences are easily visible in the beautiful work that they produced. Some of the major names in the group were Joseph Crawhall, Thomas Millie Dow, Sir James Guthrie, George Henry, E. A. Hornel, E. A. Walton, William Kennedy, Sir John Lavery, Arthur Melville, James McLachlan Nairn and James Paterson.
They are such a diverse group, in spite of their common aims, that I have decided to simply pick out a few of my favourite paintings from the show and talk about them rather than try to give a half baked art lecture!
This is a cheerful, serene little gouache with beautiful dappled light illuminating the feathers of the duck and making it stand out from its sketched in surroundings. it is a simple direct treatment of a simple subject and that gives it a lot of charm. The detail of the duck is beautifully done, especially the head, and the light across the centre of the picture and the the strong downward branches in the centre break up the loosely painted background and give it a sense of design.
The audio guide described this as an artist’s painting but I think that it is easy for anyone to enjoy it. It has great movement and dynamism, almost as if she has just looked back and the fan is shimmering. Again the paintwork is very loose and it looks like it has been painted very quickly with great confidence. The most important part of the painting, her beautiful hair and skin, has been done with enormous detail and care, while other areas of paint have been sketched in lightly, adding to the sense of freedom and movement. The way that Henry has used a thick impasto technique to highlight the fan is particularly effective, and the limited tonal range allows the red, blue and yellow accents to sing out and works beautifully. It is a painting full of joy and you can feel Henry’s delight in the new visual landscape that travel was showing him. She is quite lovely and it is hard to believe that she won’t turn her head and look back at you if you wait long enough.
This is another very serene little painting, although the cottages are workers cottages not holiday ones. Walton has captured a perfect summer day- just look at the blue of that sea. I also love the dovecote with the single white dove placed against the blue of the sky. There are beautiful details here, and great skill, in the painting of the sunlit stones in the foreground and the white walls reflecting the light. There is also a bit of narrative here. The stance of the woman suggests that she is resting from her work for a short while rather than relaxing, and the child is taking her chance to grab a little attention, facing her mother and perhaps telling her something. A stolen moment in a long ago summer afternoon.
The depth of colour is astonishing in this, for a watercolour, vibrant drifts of red autumn leaves are echoed loosely through the painting by small squares and blobs of colour, contrasting perfectly with the greeny brown earth. White is used cleverly to pick out the foreground and the sun on the side of the cottage, accenting the red and the design falls neatly into three thirds across the picture behind the central tree. It is autumn as it should be, and hardly ever is. There is nothing serene about this one. it glows with energy.
You can get to know Willie if you look at this for long enough. He is the kind of village man who has earned a reputation for being reliable and doing things well. People know and respect him. He is sitting there patiently, but not without humour, without making any kind of fuss or show. He has simply placed himself in front of the artist in his ordinary clothes and allowed him to do his work. Guthrie has responded to this by painting a simple no frills portrait using a muted palette. He has concentrated on the face, conveying character with great care, and recorded the humour and dignity of the man in front of him. This is what matters and the rest of the canvas is filled in simply to allow us to concentrate on the man himself.