I knew the name “The Glasgow Boys,” and we even have a book (a poor one) of their paintings—but I never really discovered them until I visited the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow two weekends ago.
In the 1880s and 18990s, the Museum boasts, Glasgow was the centre of the art world, made so by the Glasgow boys. They rejected sentimental and heroic pictures painted in studios and went out into the fields and painted real, usually poor, people. There were around 20 of them, and some of them were very much friends painting together. But as with all attempts to group artists it’s something of a false creation, linking together diverse painters scattered in time and geography.
James Guthrie was, I judge, the greatest of them, and his picture of the boy’s funeral at Brig O’ Turk is the most powerful picture in the gallery.
The small coffin rests on two chairs. Snow is on the ground, the painting is almost just black and white. The priest gesticulates, his right hand, white against black, one of the focal points of the painting. As was usual in those days, only men are at the funeral. All are bare headed, and the heads of all but two are in a row. The exception is a boy, whose face is just visible, and an old man, perhaps the dead boy’s grandfather. This is a wholly unsentimental picture that stands for the work of all the Glasgow Boys.
But they weren’t always miserable, and Guthrie’s rapidly painted picture of an artist painting on the beach on the East Coast of Scotland is another great painting. You can feel the wind and fresh air, and note the distant steamer. There are also pictures of the middle classes playing tennis and lazy days in France.
The other painter to grab me hard was Arthur Melville, who travelled and painted in watercolour with an intensity that we don’t usually associate with watercolour. The gallery has a collection of rapidly painted sketches that hover on the edge of abstraction. He died at 46 and otherwise might have done still more and been better known.
The Glasgow Boys suffered from poor timing: they were eclipsed by the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and modernists who followed, but are now being rediscovered—and not only by me.