Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880-1900 at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

By Ben Miller | 19 August 2010
An image of an open-air painting of a girl leading geese across a sea shore

(Above) James Guthrie, To Pastures New

Exhibition: Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880-1900, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, until September 27 2010

“I like the idea that it’s a moment captured in time,” says curator Jean Walsh, looking at a painting by George Henry of two schoolgirls playing in the Scottish outdoors.

“They’re playing chuckies, which is a game I always used to play as a wee girl with my sister. You feel like you can catch the pieces in your hand.”

We’re walking through Pioneering Painters, one of the largest exhibitions since the 1960s devoted to The Glasgow Boys, the group of young artists whose exquisite individual talents and links with the city gave it internationally respected status among the art world at the end of the 19th century.

An image of a watercolour painting of a Japanese girl

George Henry, Japanese Lady with a Fan (1894)

The cave-like gallery space underneath the main museum feels an oddly dark setting to see this succession of rolling hills and breezy coasts, encapsulated by To Pastures New, James Guthrie’s painting of a girl shooing a flock of geese across a shore, which is both the opening work and the poster picture for the show.

“If people think they know a picture by The Glasgow Boys, they probably know this one,” acknowledges Walsh, as visitors surround the canvas.

“It has all the key features of a Glasgow Boys painting – lovely fresh colours, the feeling of being outdoors…it’s a very simple, straightforward subject.”

An image of an oil painting of a group of men dressed in black for a funeral in a rural setting

James Guthrie, Highland Funeral (1881-1882)

The French realist painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage, was Guthrie’s key inspiration, informing everything from his square brush strokes to his name being written in block capitals, but the obvious contender to be the signature piece for the show owes more to symbolism.

A joint tripped-out vision between Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel, The Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe features lots of cows, bulls and horns.

“It’s a kind of ritual ceremony,” observes Walsh, who pins it down to Scotland’s Celtic past and mythology. “But they’ve tilted up the perspective – it’s full of patterns.”

An image of a painting of druids in biblical robes

Henry and Hornel, The Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890)

The use of gold paint in the collaboration was highly innovative at the time, pre-dating the likes of Austrian muralist Gustav Klimt, and the techniques used in several other works here are still causing debate today.

“This is one of the most stunning sections of the exhibition,” declares Walsh, entering a corridor of clifftop views which look more like Sardinia than Stirling, framed against ocean-blue walls.

Accompanying audio-visual excerpts by contemporary artists ponder how Arthur Melville built up one of them, Brig O’ Turk.

“He developed a very unique watercolour technique which involved putting on dab after dab of different paints,” she says.

“It involves layers of paint and then water and so on. Then right at the end he’d put on these really vibrant splodges of reds and blues.”

It was the druids, though, who paved the way. “The guy who arranged the big German exhibitions on contemporary art at the time came to London, saw that on display in the Grosvenor gallery and thought it was so fantastic that as soon as the exhibition in Scotland finished he asked for it to go to the Glaspalast in Munich,” explains Walsh.

“So it was shown there and it took Europe by storm, because people had never seen anything like this.

“They ended up thinking ‘where is this place, Glasgow, that’s producing paintings like this?’”

Admission £5/£3 (free for under-16s). Book online.

Expert Roger Billcliffe gives a Glasgow Boys Lecture on August 28 at 11.15am. Admission free, advance booking required, call 0141 276 9505.

Wee Glasgow Boys and Girls, a family weekend of activities, takes place on September 11 and 12, from 11.30am. Admission free, suitable for over-5s. Call 0141 276 9599 for more details.

Watch Jean Walsh discuss two works from the exhibition:

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