Glasgow Boys: Meeting Scotland’s 19th Century Adventurers in Art

The Glasgow Boys: if you learn about their work and spend time with it, they will teach you things about Scotland, about history, and about creativity.

The Glasgow Boys were a loosely organized group of about twenty artists, all men, who were at the height of their shared creativity mainly from 1880 to 1900. They were rebels in their day for a number of reasons — we’ll get to that in a bit — whose ground breaking choices had lasting influence on Glasgow.

One of their early gathering places was at the studio of William York Macgregor at 142 Bath Street, but the men came from different places and would expand their artistic views to take in other countries as well as other parts of Scotland. Several had trained in France, which was the art hub of the time; some were self taught. One was born in Australia and another in Belfast, though they both came to Scotland early in life.

Macgregor was a bit of an elder or mentor early on. Among others who painted and discussed painting together were Joseph Crawhall, George Henry, Edward Atkinson Hornel, John Lavery, James Guthrie, Thomas Millie Dow, and Arthur Melville.

In these last decades of the nineteenth century, the art world of Scotland centered in Edinburgh and generally produced romanticized landscapes, scenes from mythology and history, and staid portraits which often incorporated elements of all those things. The Glasgow Boys weren’t having any of it.

The uses of light and of painting techniques which featured visible brushstrokes (not the done thing in the art establishment of the time) were two approaches the Boys held in common with their near contemporaries, French painters including Monet, Degas, and Van Gogh, They appreciated and learned from the work of James MacNeill Whistler for his use of tone and color, and studied the way French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage painted rural scenes and people with realism.

Glasgow Boys Guthrie Auld Wille

The Glasgow Boys also loved to paint out of doors (despite the challenges Scotland’s weather offers), to look at what was there in front of them and record it.

Glasgow Boys Patterson walker in landscape

They looked at people in the landscapes they found in the same way, recording real people in real settings. Each painter had his own skills and his own views, of course. That’s one of the things that helps make their work a fascinating and useful record of ways life, and tastes, evolving in Glasgow and in Scotland in the late nineteenth century.

glasgow boys guthrie highland funeral

Industry and trade were flourishing in Glasgow. It was a major seaport and shipbuilding center. Even though the art establishment did not welcome these works or the men who were creating them, merchants and their families liked the paintings and purchased them, which encouraged the artists, not to mention making it possible for them to continue to create, and to travel to different parts of Scotland and to other countries — Henry and Hornel spent time in Japan, for instance — to experiment with their art.

Lavery tennis match Scotland

All of these threads found ways into the imaginations and creativity of the painters. As their tastes (and that of their purchasing public) evolved, so too did the subject matter they chose. Scenes of upper class life became more common than rural subjects.

William Kennedy Stirling Station

Patterns began to play an important part in the work of some of the Glasgow Boys. Experiments with light and shadow took on bolder hues.

glasgow boys woman in garden

Landscapes still drew their imaginations, but these might now include cityscapes and buildings. Lavery, in particular, began to turn toward portraiture — but you’d not mistake his painting of dancer Anna Pavlova for one of the portraits by a staid academy painter.

Glasgow Boys James Lavery Anna Pavlova dancer

Some of the Glasgow Boys drew on legend and myth as their careers evolved, too. One of the most well known Glasgow Boys paintings is Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe. It is a collaboration between George Henry and EA Hornel which depicts a winter scene from Celtic legend, of druid priests bringing in what were considered sacred boughs. Henry and Hornel researched historic symbols, foliage, and breeds of cattle appropriate to the time. Then they let their imaginations and skills fly.

Glasgow Boys Hornel Henry Mistletoe Druids

There is flattened perspective, real gold leaf, brush strokes on the one hand so thick they become part of the pattern of light and shadow and on the other invisible to serve areas such as the expressions on faces. It was considered a shocking and dramatic painting when it was first exhibited in 1890. It is still compelling and thought provoking.

You can see Bringing in the Mistletoe at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. There is a whole area about the Glasgow Boys, with photographs of the painters as well as many of their works, along with signage to help you learn. It is one of my favourite places to visit, and it is where all the paintings you see illustrated here are held.

There’s a map of the places in Scotland where the different painters traveled to work on their art, too.

Scptland painters map Kelvingrove

Kelvingrove has a collection of more than 600 works of the Glasgow Boys (not all of which, of course, are on view at any one time). It is not the only place to find the work of the Glasgow Boys, however. The Hunterian Gallery on the University of Glasgow campus has substantial holdings of their work, and a large collection of the work of Whistler, too, making it easy to explore those connections. Museums in Aberdeen, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and many other parts of Scotland and of the world have paintings by one or more of the Glasgow Boys.

These paintings in all their variety still resonate with viewers today, which is one of the lasting legacies of the artists. The Glasgow Boys were also a major force in establishing Glasgow as a world center of art. It still is, which is another way their work lasts well more than a century on from when it was created.

Want to know more? A number of books have been published about the art of the Glasgow Boys. One I’d suggest is Introducing the Glasgow Boys.

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