The Boys' Own Show: The Glasgow Boys reassessed

The Glasgow Boys set out to change the world, but a new exhibition proves only that they were a rather immature bunch of rebels, says Adrian Hamilton
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The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th were full of "isms", of groups, movements and bands of brothers setting out to change the artistic world. You could write whole dictionaries of them. And some have.

This was not altogether surprising. In a world of fragmenting traditions any young men (they were largely men) worth their salt wanted to plant a flag on the landscape of revolution. At the same time, art schools in Paris and elsewhere were producing a generation that was skilled and ready to overturn its crusty elders.

That at least is the claim of the Royal Academy's new exhibition, Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880-1900. The show promotes the view that these artists, in revolt against the Edinburgh establishment even more than the London one, were not only pioneers of their time, but internationally recognised as such.

That they were a group is broadly true. Although not every one of them lived in Glasgow, they congregated in the city in the winter and at countryside retreats in the summer. They viewed themselves as the harbingers of change. You couldn't become a member of the Scottish Academy unless you lived in Edinburgh. So they cocked a snook and set out to do their own thing.

The question is, did they succeed and do they justify the claims being made for them as a genuinely pioneering movement in Scotland? The display at Burlington House of more than 80 oils, watercolours and drawings has the virtue of bringing together the group's main players and showing how they developed after their beginning in the early 1880s. And it has the benefit of being displayed in the Sackler Wing, one of the most accommodating spaces in London.

And yet... and yet. The pictures are pleasant, the ideas serious and the painting almost always of a high order. But the final effect, after seeing four rooms of the group's work, is of slight letdown. The Glasgow Boys come across neither as "pioneering", as the curators would like, or original enough to surprise or excite.

Although formally called "the Glasgow School of Painters", they were never really a school. They were a bunch of painters who formed friendships and then went their separate ways. The term "boys" was applied by Robert Macaulay Stevenson, a member of the group and it is probably apt, given their youth and ideals at the start.

The group's first urging was partly a reaction to the Edinburgh tradition of academic art, history painting and grand portraiture. They went instead for the Barbizon school of realistic painting and particularly the works of Jean-François Millet and the young Jules Bastien-Lepage. It is not clear how much further the Glasgow Boys took the work of their idols. Portraits by James Guthrie, George Henry and EA Walton, of peasants and small children, line the walls of the first room. Guthrie's A Funeral Service in the Highlands at least has the feel of authenticity, being based on an event he had witnessed. But the rest of the realist works are all too aptly summarised by their titles: Playmates; Schoolmates; To Pastures New; A Daydream; Resting; and, most noxiously, Old Willie – the Village Worthy.

Gritty realism with a modern message this is not. Compare these works with Goya's Knife Grinder in the Treasures from Budapest exhibition on the floor below, or Cezanne's Card Players at the Courtauld, across town, and you see the gap between imagination and calculated purpose. It is salutary to remember that Vincent van Gogh, who also loved the Barbizon school and worshipped Millet, painted the Potato Eaters in 1885.

Things lighten up when the exhibition moves on to works produced at Grez sur Loing, an artist's colony near Paris, where several Glasgow Boys spent their summers. There they picked up some of the French impressionist way with light and rough brushwork. Arthur Melville's Paysanne a Grez has none of the moral purpose that marks those paintings done in Scotland. It is a study in light, colour and shade. John Lavery's On the Bridge at Grez is one of the most fluent works on show. Lavary and Melville had studied in Paris.

The French influence, along with the example of James McNeil Whistler and Japonisme, gave the group a greater variety of subjects and of palette. Lavery's The Tennis Party, an oblong view of a newly-popular sport, at least has a feeling of moment and society. William Kennedy, who also studied in Paris, did a dusk study of Stirling Station which nods to the modern urban world.

The curious thing about the Glasgow Boys is that they did not really produce first-class work until they broke up. George Henry and Edward Hornel spent a year in Japan, partly at the expense of the great Glasgow collector William Burrell. Even then they failed to learn the lessons of Japanese art in terms of daring viewpoint, cut-off composition and blocked colour, but their stay did at least give them crowd and movement. Several Glasgow Boys became portraitists. The revolutionaries of the 1880s ended as members of the establishment. It was ever thus.

It is with Arthur Melville's watercolours that one starts to draw breath. Melville was a master of the medium, washing his paper with colours, using a rag or sponge to direct them when wet and adding layers as the paint dried. He was a constant traveller and his works breathe the excitement of new horizons. Spain provided him with a passion his home country lacked. His The Little Bullfight: 'Bravo Toro' has passion and a sense of drama that none of his contemporaries could match. It simply explodes upon you.

The other truly extraordinary picture here is even more dramatic and perverse. It is an oil, painted, most unusually, by two artists, George Henry and EA Hornel: The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe. The viewer is struck by the sheer force of the composition and colour as the procession winds down a hill. Your eye is caught by the sculptural face at the centre and the boldness of the patterns. It is not a likable work. It is too Wagnerian. But it is impressive and it made the group's reputation in Germany.

The point about these last works is that they express the feelings and reactions of the painters. They have an authenticity which is missing in too much of the Glasgow Boys' work. The group may have thought of themselves as revolutionaries but in many ways they looked back to the formal composition and moralising message of an era that was being forever broken abroad.

The hesitation one feels at the Royal Academy comes about partly because of a sense that the Glasgow Boys' art was so derivative of the schools and artists they admired. But it is also because there is so little of the group's time in their work. Glasgow was not some provincial outpost – it was the British Empire's second city, from which ships, locomotives and engineering projects were exported all over the world. It is not necessarily the job of the artist to represent social and economic change, but looking at most of the artistic movements they did reflect the hastening pace of history. The trouble with the Glasgow Boys was that they were more boys than Glaswegians.

Pioneering Painters: the Glasgow Boys 1880-1900, Royal Academy, London W1 (www.royalacademy.org.uk; 0844 209 0051) to 23 January 2011

For further reading:

'The Glasgow Boys' by Roger Billcliffe (Frances Lincoln, £40). Order for £36 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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