Showing The Story of an Unstoppable Talent

November 2010

Publication: The Times

The writer and artist Alasdair Gray is that rare thing – a polymath of complementary talents whose gifts are prodigiously but equally distributed. In this capacity he shares some similarities with William Blake with whom he has often been compared – both by himself and others.


Gray’s is a rich and seemingly unfathomable talent: to date he has produced around twenty books (most of them illustrated and designed by himself),  painted countless murals, produced scores of posters and numerous paintings, written plays and screenplays – the list goes on and on. Now, at the age of seventy-five he shows no sign of slowing down.


Gray’s unstoppable output is demonstrated in two current exhibitions and a newly published book (he refers to the publication as an ‘autopictography’  rather than an illustrated autobiography).  The book provides a keen insight into the development of the artistic and literary talents of this remarkable man.  However, it comes almost as a shock to read early on the categorical statement “This book is not an autobiography despite personal details given to explain how and why, at different times, I came to make certain in a certain way…” Asked why he does not regard A Life as such Gray responds simply that his written life story would be “…much, much longer…with many more personal details.”


Gray describes a bookish, awkward, asthmatic  and somewhat lonely childhood in Riddrie in the east end of Glasgow during which time his mother encouraged him to join Miss Jean Irwin’s week-end art classes at Kelvingrove Museum , “…for the next five years Saturday mornings were my happiest times,” recounts Gray.  Art school followed where Gray pursued his own idiosyncratic course under the gentle tutelage of Walter Pritchard in the Mural Department.


For decades Gray’s first novel and magnum opus,  Lanark, was a much discussed ‘work-in-progress’ before its eventual publication in 1981. The novel reflects many of Gray’s own experiences, including his slavish working on a plethora of murals around Glasgow.  In the Talbot Rice Gallery wall space is given over to displaying the genesis of the graphical aspect of Gray’s books, including this world-famous cult classic. Thus there’s a rich representative display of Gray’s ‘graphicism’ – from The Fall of Kelvin Walker to Mavis Belfrage and from Unlikely Stories, Mostly to 1982, Janine.


Gray’s graphical style is unmistakable, characterised by bold, stylised imagery often with an architectural or figurative focus demonstrating a careful study of form and proportionality. His ability to capture a genuine likeness with a few deft and judicious strokes of the pen is beyond doubt, as seen in his 1969 portrait of his friend, Judy MacRae. Gray’s work as a serious painter is perhaps less well known but his allegory Eden and After, from 1965, recently acquired by the National Galleries, demonstrates that Gray’s immense artistic abilities are not confined solely to stylisation and illustration.