The Glasgow Boys – A Spirit of Rebellion

Publication: The Times.   
June 2017

On the wall of a specially constructed children’s activity area, within the twin rooms that constitute Kirkcaldy Museum’s temporary exhibitions’ space, are the words of Edgar Degas: “Art is not what you see but what you make others see”.  It’s as good an introduction to this show as any and there’s a real link between the work of at least one of the Glasgow Boys, Joseph Crawhill and Degas, his near contemporary.

Degas, famously, painted and sketched from real life – out in the landscape, at the ballet or the racecourse. Here, Crawhall’s undated watercolour The Finish, shares the similar matter and infuses the colourful scene of jockeys and riders with the same sense of energy and immediacy as his more famous French counterpart.

The influence of the French idea of painting ‘en plein air’ was central to the Glasgow Boys’ philosophy. In this they were inspired by the work of French painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage and the American James McNeill Whistler. Dutch art played a significant part in the Glasgow Boys story – Jacob Maris, whose Courtyard Landscape of 1864 is displayed here, showed how the domestic and the everyday, depicted with immediacy, could be valid subject matter for art.  Late in his career, another of the Boys, James Guthrie, demonstrated the continuing influence of Maris, and others, in My House at Rhu.

There’s no thematic or chronological order to this display and the curators have been guided by dimension, content and colour, to good effect. The information panels – hated by some – are are welcome introduction to the works, and their informative and accessible tone is inviting, unlike the pretentious art jargon which pollutes some contemporary ‘white cube’ spaces.

The title of the show is apposite in that it refers to a historical context when the group were in open rebellion against the values of an ‘art establishment’ represented by the Royal Scottish Academy.  It may not look like it now, but Arthur Melville’s watercolour The Boatyard of 1894, painted in Venice, or Thomas Millie Dow’s exquisite A Spring Day, Morocco, showing a cowherd walking through a field of blue irises, were direct challenges. They eschewed the romanticisation and dark varnished canvases favoured by the RSA and let in the light and colour that so characterises the Glasgow Boys’ style.

There were around twenty members of the Glasgow group, and seventeen of them are represented here, by 30 works – all of which are in the permanent collection of Kirkcaldy Museum. That would be a very significant cultural asset for any museum, but for a smaller regional player is represents an outstanding attraction.

Degas got it right. In their heyday in the 1880s and 1890s The Glasgow Boys, in their vivid and immediate candour, made their audiences see the value of everyday life.