Review – Pioneering Painters – Glasgow Boys: 1880-1900

Review by Kim Clayton-Greene of Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880– 1900

Pioneering Painters – The Glasgow Boys: 1880-1900

Royal Academy, London 30 October 2010—23 January 2011

Reviewed by Kim Clayton-Greene

James GUTHRIE, Miss Helen Sowerby, 1882. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Presenting a relatively modest selection of works, the exhibition Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys: 1880-1900, which recently closed at the Royal Academy, London (the version reviewed here), after an earlier run in Glasgow, still provided much to delight.  The works were rich and varied, at times pale and restrained and then bold and vibrant.  The exhibition, the first showing of the works of the Glasgow Boys in 40 years, showcases the works of the movement’s protagonists: Sir James Guthrie, Sir John Lavery, Arthur Melville, Edward Arthur Walton, George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel, and some others.

The Glasgow Boys were a loose grouping of about 23 artists who worked, lived or were connected to Glasgow in the late nineteenth century. They travelled, socialised and worked with each other, sharing and developing ideas.  They shared an antipathy towards the hackneyed romanticism of their Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) elders (whom they labelled The Gluepots because of the thick meglip varnish they used to give their works the instant patina of age) and a desire to have Scottish painting recognised as serious and innovative, capable of moving beyond the established genres of Victorian painting.  They held in high regard the works of France’s plein-air painters and particularly the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage.

In the late nineteenth century, in a bitter manifestation of the time-honoured rivalry between the two Scottish cities, the Edinburgh-based RSA held in disdain those artists who refused to work in the capital and in its schools, especially those from Glasgow.  At the same time the Glasgow Boys where obstructed locally by the Glasgow Art Club, which in the early 1880s refused almost all of them membership. The exhibition begins at this point, examining the output of Glasgow Boys from their formation in the 1880s to the end of the movement in the early 1900s, at which time its members, no longer boys but established artists, had gone their separate ways.

In the early 1880s the Boys spent their summers in the country making preparatory sketches and paintings for works they completed over the winter in their studios.  The works of James Guthrie stand out in the first room of the exhibition and reveal much about the progression of his artistic development and the development of the Glasgow Boys in general.  His early A Funeral Service in the Highlands (1881–2), a dark and sombre painting, reveals an early finesse and mastery of compositional balance.  Guthrie’s work is reminiscent of Gustave Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), and of the more emotional works of Victorian painters, such as Sir Edwin Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (1837).  Yet Guthrie’s work possesses a boldness of painterly handling, particularly in the use of bright tones that differentiates his approach from that of Landseer and Courbet.  Nearby hang Guthrie’s next works: Miss Helen Sowerby (1882), a homage to James McNeill Whistler’s portraiture, and To Pastures New (1882–3), a powerful demonstration of the Naturalist intentions of Guthrie and the Glasgow Boys.  The growing confidence in Guthrie’s handling of paint is shown in these two works, which combine movement and brightness to invigorating effect.

From here the exhibition pauses to consider the pastoral works of other Glasgow Boys, in particular the children and peasant subjects to which the group were particularly attracted in the mid 1880s.  Of these, George Henry’s Noon (1885) and E. A. Walton’s A Daydream (1885) are arguably the most powerful.  The incandescent use of brown and green in Henry’s Noon and its chequered application captures the bright, reflective light of midday, whilst the sharp focus on the young girl’s face and upper body contrasts with the softness of the rest of the painting to direct our attention on her figure.  This work, as well as Walton’s A Daydream, in which the artist also creates a distinction between his highly focused and precisely painted figures a against a soft back, demonstrate an adoption of photorealistic techniques that were pioneered by Bastien-Lepage, who’s experimentations with this style greatly influenced many of the Glasgow Boys.

Moving away from pastoral scenes the exhibition looks at the Glasgow Boys’ depiction of modern, urban life, the focus of which is Lavery’s pair The Tennis Party (1885) and A Rally (1885).  In these works Lavery’s treatment of tone seems to have developed from the muted colouration of his earlier pieces, such as Under the Cherry Tree (1884), towards an increasing use of high colour.  Other Glasgow Boys at this time also seem to have been drawn to the power of brighter tonality, and the white umbrella in Alexander Roche’s An Interruption (1884) nicely mirrors the radiant white of the main figure’s dress in Lavery’s A Rally.

The next two rooms contain the works produced by George Henry and E. A. Hornel that resulted from their one and a half years spent painting and travelling in Japan.  The vivid, flat and tightly framed Japanese works of Henry and Hornel are mesmerising.  The sensation of exotic voyeurism, made famous by Paul Gauguin in his Tahitian series, is combined here with the tenets of Naturalism that the Glasgow Boys had developed in the previous decade. Hornel in particular employs a riotous use of colour and flat brushwork to produce works such as Two Geisha Girls (1894) that swarms with colour within a shortened perspective.  Henry’s work, which is more restrained than Hornel’s, focuses on intimate scenes of no more than three figures who are often taking part in traditional Japanese rituals, such as the tea ceremony.  Henry’s single figure works, such as Japanese Lady with a Fan (1894) and The Koto Player, Tokyo (1894) echo traditional Japanese art, particularly ukiyo-e prints that were extremely popular amongst western artists and collectors in the late nineteenth century.

Henry and Hornel went their separate ways after their Japanese tour, as did the rest of the Glasgow Boys, and from this point on, perhaps fittingly, although certainly not comfortably for the viewer, the exhibition fragments into several different case studies of the separate ways in which the Boys’ art progressed.  James Guthrie’s pastel works, mostly interior studies of women, from the early 1890s are have a delicate, meditative beauty but are disappointing in comparison with the vitality and painterly handling found in the earliest rooms of the exhibition.  Although Arthur Melville and Joseph Crawhall’s watercolours demonstrate the brilliant capabilities of these two artists, particularly Melville’s mastery of the watercolour medium, they seem slightly out of joint with the rest of the exhibition’s focus on large oil canvases.

The final work in the exhibition, chosen as the work to draw the exhibition together, and used extensively as the exhibition’s promotional image, is George Henry and E. A. Hornel’s collaborative work, The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890).  Not only is this work a monument to collaboration, a rare practice in the nineteenth century, it is also a monument to the Glasgow Boys and their ideals.  Richly coloured, intensely geometric and two-dimensional, the work captures their Symbolist interests and marks a definitive break from the Naturalist tendencies of two artists’ earlier work.

The decision to place such a remarkable painting at the end of the exhibition is both understandable and frustrating.  Its physical position in the Sackler Gallery did not give the viewer sufficient space to step back and view the work in the manner dictated by its size and composition.  And while The Druids is certainly capable of concluding the exhibition on a high note, it would have perhaps been better located amongst the works that marked the shift that took place in the early 1890s in the work of Henry, Hornel, and other Glasgow Boys.  If it had been displayed with the impressive A Galloway Landscape (1889), hung much earlier and lost amongst the pastoral works, the two works would have presented a neater summation of the Symbolist and Japanese ideas that started to influence the Glasgow Boys in the late 1880s and early 1890s.  These ideas were not explored as fully, or as well, as the ideas of Naturalism were in the early stages of the exhibition.  Positioned at the end point of the show, after the jumble of the previous rooms, The Druids was not given the primacy due to it.

The change from the first to the second half of the exhibition which seemed to be intended to take place at the point where the Japanese works of Henry and Hornel are hung, in the RA’s exhibition at least, was not sufficiently signposted.  The rapid change in style by these two artists and others in the later stages of their careers was not well explained to the viewer and the final two rooms left something to be desired, as the exhibition’s narrative tended to waver from here.  Thankfully the works themselves, with their magical, shimmering impressions, were able to make up for this flaw and the power of individual pieces shone brightly.

© Kim Clayton-Greene 2011

‘Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880– 1900’ was an exhibition from Glasgow Museums in association with the Royal Academy of Arts, curated by Jean Walsh, Senior Curator, and Hugh Stevenson, Curator of British Art at Glasgow Museums with consultant curators Roger Billcliffe and Patrick Bourne, together with MaryAnne Stevens, Director of Academic Affairs at the Royal Academy of Arts.

9 April 2010 – 27 September 2010, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, UK.

30 October 2010 – 23 January 2011, Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK .

Official website:

http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/glasgow-boys/

Exhibition Catalogue:

Hugh Stevenson & Jean WalshPioneering Painters: the Glasgow Boys.  Glasgow: Glasgow Museums Publishing, 2010.

[NB Click on the thumbnails to view larger versions. If you are reading this in an email you will need to follow the ‘View the latest post at’ link to the MAN website to view the show properly]

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List of Images:

James GUTHRIE, A Funeral Service in the Highlands, 1881-2.  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

James GUTHRIE, Miss Helen Sowerby, 1882.  National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

James GUTHRIE, To Pastures New, 1882-3.  Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum, Aberdeen.

George HENRY, Noon, 1885.  Private Collection.

EA Walton, A Daydream, 1885.  National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

John LAVERY, The Tennis Party, 1885.  Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum, Aberdeen.

John LAVERY, A Rally, 1885.  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

Alexander ROCHE, An Interruption, 1884.  Private Collection.

EA HORNEL, Two Geisha Girls, 1894.  Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, Glasgow.

George HENRY, Japanese Lady with a Fan, 1894.  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

James GUTHRIE, Causeie (Chatting), 1892.  Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, Glasgow.

Arthur MELVILLE, The Little Bullfight: ‘Bravo Toro’, 1892.  Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Joseph CRAWHALL, The Aviary, Clifton, 1888.  The Burrell Collection, Glasgow.

George HENRY & EA HORNEL, The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe, 1890.  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

George HENRY, A Galloway Landscape, 1889.  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

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