Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880-1900, Royal Academy, London

For the final two decades of the 19th century, a rag-tag-and-bobtail group of artists hinted at a new, modern mood in painting. Sadly, it wasn't to last

If Edinburgh wanted Roman heroes, Glasgow wanted grit: work, industry, invention, a heady commission for a Victorian artist.

Like some unrelentingly industrious Glasgow engineer, James Guthrie paints himself on a French beach, painting. Not for him trellissed terraces or the Empress Eugenie: this one of The Glasgow Boys is crouched behind his umbrella, his face less important than his activity. The picture's surface looks as though it has been laid on with a trowel. Perhaps it was. To drive the point home, Guthrie calls the work Hard at It.

The Glasgow Boys were a rag-tag-and-bobtail group – "loose-knit" is hardly the word – whose best-known members are Guthrie, Arthur Melville and Sir John Lavery, and the Royal Academy show takes an orthodox line in defining The Boys as anti-Edinburgh, the snooty patrons of that city preferring their art classical.

To be a Glasgow Boy, you didn't have to be from Glasgow, merely broadly anti-academic, popular with Glaswegians, and hanging out with other Glasgow Boys. It may have been a lack of a manifesto that allowed William Stott and the others to paint so freely, in little groups in Kirkcudbrightshire or Grez-sur-Loing in the last 20 years of the 19th century.

When Stott painted the ferry at Grez in 1882, he too was being wilder than his solid name and his comforting subject suggest. For one thing, the young son of a Lancashire mill owner – Stott, then 25, proudly signs his name "of Oldham" – was going against his master, the Academic painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme. Gérôme had made his name in sword-and-sandal histories: the gladiatorial Thumbs Down, happily lost to a private collection, is typical. Stott, by contrast, paints the here and now and the rough and ready.

The subject of The Ferry is less the skiff of its title than the two young girls who watch it – farmers' daughters, probably, thick-shod and seen back view. You might reach for the word "Realism", although Stott's image is too pretty for that, too poetic. In any case, Courbet, from whom the mood of the picture distantly derives, was old hat by 1882, and The Ferry has none of the urbs in rure tension of Monet or Manet. Where the work's real rebellion lies is not in its subject but in its composition.

Screw up your eyes and The Ferry quickly resolves itself into four horizontal bands – light, dark, light, dark, reading down from the top – of sky, cottages and their reflection, river and river bank. It doesn't take much to lose the girls and punt altogether, to push the colour-bands flat up against the picture plane, reduce the houses to rectangles; to make The Ferry abstract.

Further south, in Aix, Cézanne was busy flattening Mont Sainte-Victoire into the planes that would lead to Cubism. Can Stott have known his work? In a sense, it doesn't matter. Coincidentally or not, The Ferry hints at a new mood in painting, that tipping-point where paint becomes more important than the thing painted.

The Glasgow Boys' free approach is shown in the direct gaze, and cabbages, of Guthrie's A Hind's Daughter. In fixing the artist with precisely the appraising eye with which he fixes her, the labourer's child bridges the gulf that would normally lie between them. Both she and Guthrie are at work, and so his paint is workmanlike – a scaffolded composition of horizontals and verticals, scuffed on in muddy greens and browns.

As with Stott's ferry, the image is both backward-looking, Courbet-ish, and strongly formal and modern. And it's this curious valuing of freedom and ingenuity that allowed Lavery and the rest to make work that, on occasion, wowed artists in Munich and Vienna.

And yet, the story of the Glasgow Boys does not end happily. That freedom didn't last. The same Lavery who painted Glasgow folk milling around the 1888 International Exhibition died a knight, best known for his society portraits. Guthrie gave up his gritty surfaces and grids and went back to painting the varnished nymphs and Venuses Gérôme had taught him. George Henry and E A Hornel travelled to Japan and returned with geishas and lotuses. Worse, they went all mystical and Celtic: the man must have a heart of stone who would not shriek with laughter at the pair's jointly painted Druids. As so often with British painting, as with Ben Nicholson and John Piper 40 years later, modernity ran out of steam. A shame, really.

Royal Academy, London W1 (020- 7300 8000) to 23 Jan

Next Week:

Charles Darwent courts immortality in the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road