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THE GLASGOW BOYS (a book review)



Book cover, The Glasgow BoysWhile the 'water cure doctors' in Great Malvern were selling restorative cures to the well-off, painters in London and Scotland were busy creating and selling modern works of art to affluent merchants and businessmen.

In Scotland the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh largely decided what was fit to be exhibited. The RSA was conservative in outlook, and in the 1870s the new ideas of a small group of emerging young painters based in Glasgow were frowned upon.

Roger Billcliffe's book 'The Glasgow Boys' (ref 1) tells the story of who these painters were, their friendships, how their work developed, and how they were treated by the establishment.

Many paintings of that time, apart from portraits, were either of imagined mythological scenes, or 'chocolate box' adaptions of landscapes which bore little resemblance to reality; these were mostly painted in the studio, sometimes based on sketches made outdoors.

The French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage is credited with revitalizing the concept of painting standing outdoors (En Plein Air). This gave a more interesting perspective and his paintings were often more natural and true to life than those of his predecessors. Examples of his work include Pas Meche 1882, a boy standing with a rod, who had caught no fish and Pauvre Fauvette.

The group of 'avant-garde' Glasgow School painters that experimented with this and other new techniques became known as 'The Glasgow Boys' and included amongst them were Sir James Guthrie, Edward Arthur Walton, James Paterson, William York MacGregor (who some regard as the father of the Glasgow School), Joseph Crawhall, George Henry, Edward Atkinson Hornel, Sir John Lavery, William Kennedy (1859 - 1918), Alexander Roche, Thomas Millie Dow and Robert Macaulay Stevenson.

In the early days their paintings received unfavourable criticism from the Royal Scottish Academy and the old guard.

However, by the 1890s, after their paintings had been widely exhibited in London and other countries, and were liked by many, several of the 'Glasgow Boys' were belatedly offered membership of the RSA; but by then it was really too late as they had moved from Scotland to London where their work was more saleable. To quote from (ref 1):

By exhibiting in England and abroad, and successfully selling their pictures abroad too, the Boys came to realise that Glasgow and Scotland could never sustain a similar level of financial or critical success. To satisfy their new ambition most of them were forced to follow the well-worn path of previous Scots artists and take the road to London.

Like many other painters the 'Glasgow Boys' also augmented their income by taking commissions to paint portraits of the wealthy and famous.

Examples of the Glasgow Boys' work can be seen at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.

(It is of some note that the Glasgow born art collector George McCulloch did not collect the work of the Glasgow Boys, except for one painting 'The Water Nymphs' by Edward Atkinson Hornel dated 1904. The reason for this may have been that his good friend, the Glasgow born painter, David Murray was a traditionalist who had been against the Glasgow Boys joining the Glasgow Art Club in the 1870s and may have advised McCulloch against purchasing their work. Perhaps there was a little self interest at work, as David Murray sold several of his own paintings to McCulloch.)

A favourite painting of ours is 'To Pastures New' by James Guthrie which depicts a young girl herding a flock of geese.

Book Review

Roger Billcliffe has written an excellent history of this important group of painters, little known among the general population.

He describes in detail how the group known as 'The Glasgow Boys' started, how the friendships of the artists developed, the influences on their work, and where they painted.

Many paintings are reproduced in good detail, often in colour.

His style is very readable, which makes the book informative both for the general reader, and as a good text for students interested in this period of British Art.

Roger Billcliffe has a good pedigree for writing with authority on this topic having been Keeper of Fine Art at the Glasgow Art Gallery and a director of the Fine Arts Society. He now runs the Billcliffe Gallery in Glasgow.

External Links

YouTube video clips of a BBC television programme about the 'Glasgow Boys':

BBC arts documentary, The Glasgow Boys, video 1/4

BBC arts documentary, The Glasgow Boys, video 2/4

BBC arts documentary, The Glasgow Boys, video 3/4

BBC arts documentary, The Glasgow Boys, video 4/4


  1. Billcliffe Roger, The Glasgow Boys, The Glasgow School of Painting 1875 - 1895, John Murray (Publishers) Ltd, 1985
  2. Woods Christopher, Dictionary of British Art Vol IV, Victorian Painters, published 1995. Volume 1, 'The Text' ISBN 1 851491716 (essentially a dictionary of British painters).
  3. Maas Jeremy, Victorian Painters, 1969
  4. Maas Jeremy, Victorian Art World in Photographs, 1984

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