Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Glasgow Boys

Browsing the Brisbane Municipal Library art shelves a few days ago I discovered a beautiful book about a group of artists I knew nothing about.

The book is "The Glasgow Boys" by Roger Billcliffe,  first published in 1985. It presents the work of several young Scottish painters from the end of the 19th century. They were not really a formal group but were united in their taste for naturalism and plein-air painting. Of course it is the portraits that held most appeal for me and the figures set in the landscape.

The main figures in the group were James Guthrie, EA Walton, James Paterson, WY Macgregor, Joseph Crawhall, George Henry, John Lavery, Arthur Melville, and William Kennedy.

Many years ago when I was studying Art History at university theirs was the kind of work that was frowned upon compared to the freshness and innovation of the Impressionists. I guess it was seen as sentimental and anecdotal and yet I find nowadays it has such an appeal for me. In my own work I am actually striving to be more "academic" and "realist" and no longer have any interest in all the isms and shisms of the modern art period.


This is one by James Guthrie called "Schoolmates". It is very reminiscent of Jules Bastien-Lepage.
The Glasgow boys do not appear to have been politically motivated and their type of realism cannot be linked directly to that of Gustave Courbet in France although several of them studied and painted over there. Courbet's work challenged social attitudes as well as artistic conventions. To our eyes today his work does appear a little maudlin and nostalgic and it is difficult to believe that he was criticised in his own day for a lack of sentiment compared to Millet.
This particular blend of naturalism and realism appealed to many painters in the late 19th century even here in Australia, as it retained the traditional emphasis on tonal vales and technical proficiency yet combined it with a new approach to composition and subject matter.
This is by Arthur Melville entitled simply "A Peasant Girl". It is more than a genre or landscape work yet not really a portrait either. She is a figure in the landscape yet placed so centrally she dominates her setting although she is also a product of it.

This amazing portrait is again by James Guthrie and is called "Old Willie". A masterful portrait by any standards. Front on, centrally placed, no nonsence pose and direct gaze with eye contact, simple white background with a hint of shadow behind the head and the lettering gives it a monumental quality. It looks like posing was a serious business. I wish I could find models so amenable and businesslike.

My favourite however would have to be this below -


This is called "French Grandmother" by William Kennedy. I love how he has resisted the temptation to focus on any of the facial features. The shadow around the eye socket says enough because the profile line says it all. In colour it is quite subtle also and the touch of pattern in the headscarf ties it all together. It also looks quite impasto which suits the "salt of the earth" type of character of the subject. The foreshortening of the arms and hands doesn't look quite right but it does indicate that it was done from life and maybe she moved. The hunched over feeling is there though, hands probably on a cane.
I wonder what she thought of it?

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