Sunday, January 09, 2011

Art Review : Pioneering Painters - The Glasgow Boys (Royal Academy 31/12/10)

The Glasgow Boys was not a formal movement like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but a number of loose groups of artists based around Glasgow from around 1880 to 1890, and who exhibited at the Glasgow Institute Annual exhibition in 1885 and in London at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1890 rather than at the Royal Academy of Scotland in Edinburgh. This splendid exhibition, which has transferred from the Kelvingove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow to the Royal Academy in London, tracks their influences and development from 1880 through to their final absorbtion into the artistic establishment at the turn of the century.

Their style was not homogenous - however, there were certain themes which predominated. They were realists, rejecting the classical academic tradition. The earlier Boys were strongly influenced by the Barbizon School, painting poor countryfolk and rural scenes en plein air before finishing their works in the studio. Jules Bastien-Lepage was their exemplar, his naturalism having proved popular and widely exhibited in Scotland. From him, they absorbed the looser brushwork and flat tonalities that are typical of their early work. This is exemplified in James Guthrie's early work "A Funeral Service in the Highlands", where the grey funereal tones remind one of the similarly Barbizon-influenced Hague School.

To Pastures New by James Guthrie
 Aberdeen Art Gallery
 However the grey tones were not typical. Bastien-Lepage taught that one had to immerse oneself in the communities that you wished to paint, and this proved extremely influential. Guthrie, Walton and Crawhall painted together at Crowland in Lincolnshire where the attraction was the consistency of the light rather than the rapidly changing skyscapes of the West Coast. "To Pastures New" by Guthrie captures the openness of the Lincolnshire sky as the deftly drawn young gooseherd concentrates hard whilst leading her flock across the wide picture frame. But surprisingly, this scene was only sketched in Lincolnshire and worked up during the winter at Guthrie's studio in Helensburgh.

In 1883,Guthrie, Walton and Crawhall went for the summer to Cockurnspath in Berwickshire, which was to be come a regular favorite of the Boys. They would be joined over the next few years by George Henry, EA Walton, Arthur Melville and Alexander Roche amongst others. In this period, Henry and Walton's work - following Bastien-Lepage- becomes flatter, more concerned with composition and the effects of light, whilst Guthrie's "Schoolmates" reminds me of the more traditional compostions of Millet.

Whilst Barbizon was a major influence, several of the Glasgow Boys, including Melville, Roche, Lavery and Dow, spent some summers in nearby Grez-sur-Loing, which had the advantages of being cheaper and easier to get to. A large international artists community was based there, and William Stott of Oldham in particular was an influence on those who painted there. John Lavery spent the summers of 1883 and 1884 there, but when he returned to Glasgow he saw Guthrie's "To Pastures New" which influenced him to remain in Scotland, where he brought his skills increasingly to document the emerging Glaswegian middle classes and in particular the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888.

The Druids : Bringing in the Mistletoe
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Meanwhile, other influences was brought to bear. Japanese woodblock prints were in vogue, popularised by Whistler and familiar in Glasgow through the influential Art dealer Alexander Reid. George Henry and EA Hornel were most deeply influenced by Japanese art, and, from their studio in Kirkudbright in Galloway,  their openness to an eclectic range of influences resulted in the most dramatic - though least typical - work of the Glasgow Boys. "The Druids - Bringing in the Mistletoe" combines naturalism in the heads of the Galloway Cows, pictish and celtic iconography in the robes of the druids, and the symbolism of Gustaphe Moreau.

Henry and Hornel travelled to Japan in 1893. By this time the work of the Glasgow Boys had been successfully exhibited in London and then at the Munich Glaspalast. From then on, success came easily for the leading Boys. Guthrie and Lavery became established as society portraitists. Crawhall became the leading exponent of gouache on linen (to my mind "Horse and Cart with Lady" is unequalled). Arthur Melville's watercolours have a richness of colour and fluidity of technique which is breathtaking. But by this time the Boys had progressed beyond their origins. Each had their own individual style which would lead some of them to success in the 20th Century.

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