I was ridiculously chuffed to be asked to contribute an essay to a book published to mark the 50th year of the groundbreaking Glasgow Group in 2008. The invitation came from my former art teacher, Jim Wylie, then el-presidente of the Group and a fine painter to boot.
Jim was a quietly guiding figure throughout my teenage years and I owe him a real debt of gratitude for instilling in me a love of the visual arts (albeit I seemed to deviate off the path for a few years!)
Trawling through the archives of its website www.glasgowgroup.co.uk was a lesson in Scottish contemporary art history and a fascinating exercise.
Alasdair Gray also wrote a piece in his own sublime, inimitable style about his own experience as a founder member of the group.
(I was also ridiculously chuffed to be in such stellar literary company!)
“To try to avoid cliché (impossible) and to try to recognise one’s place in a culture which relies on cliché and signs as its language.”
Douglas Gordon, 1989
Glasgow Group’s 32nd Annual Art Exhibition, Tramway, Glasgow
The pioneering spirit of the Glasgow Group is best illustrated by a visual image, albeit one conjured up by the written word.
It is 1973 and we are on the steps of Paisley Art Gallery and Museum on a bright spring day. Artists are arriving at the building clutching the fruits of their labour for possible inclusion in the venerable Paisley Art Institute’s annual exhibition, all watched over by the discerning eye of George the janitor, who, in these days, is the first hurdle to pass in the selection process.
Having parked his car, Jim Spence, Glasgow Group founder member and terrier-like upholder of its artistic flame, is climbing the stairs with a painting under his arm, when he is struck by a vision of a man on the way down, carrying a crucifix fashioned out of old chrome car bumpers.
“He looked for all the world as though on his way to the Via Doloroso,” recalls Spence, who at that point was some 15 years into a 33-year-long tenure as president of the Glasgow Group.
“It was obvious from his demeanour that his work had not been accepted. We nodded at each other and I carried on. At the entrance, I was met by the janitor, who eyed my painting suspiciously before remarking, ‘It’s a very high standard in here, you know.’
“I nodded and asked him who the man was I’d just passed on the stairs carrying the cross. He told me the man’s name was George Wyllie and after asking about, I eventually I managed to track down a phone number. I knew instantly that anyone who was creating such inventive work should be exhibiting with the Glasgow Group.
“After an initial misunderstanding because George didn’t believe someone would telephone him out of the blue to ask him to exhibit anywhere, it was clear from the beginning that his humour, inventiveness, and energy would be an asset to any organisation. Untrammelled by academic training, he approached his art with uninhibited enthusiasm.”
It would be 16 years before Wyllie’s iconic Paper Boat would be unveiled at the Group’s 1989 exhibition in the Tramway, the first visual arts exhibition ever to be held in this unrivalled space, but it created a major stir, not least among the invited sculptors, who were not best pleased that so much space was devoted to the work of a self-taught maverick.
Also exhibiting in this show was a little-known young artist called Douglas Gordon, a former pupil of Jim Spence and his wife, Anda Paterson at Dumbarton High School, who would go on to be given his first ever solo show by the Group.
Now an internationally feted contemporary artist who bases himself between New York and Glasgow, Gordon is making a welcome return to the fold for this 50th anniversary year and will be the main guest artist at the Group’s major retrospective in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
It is this hunger for pushing boundaries that has always characterised the Glasgow Group. An artists’ cooperative based on sound socialist principles, it has weathered many a storm to remain a constant presence on the Scottish contemporary art scene. Always a well-respected body, its members are artists’ artists and that’s the way they like it.
Class structures have crumbled, artistic movements have shifted, galleries have changed, governments of all political persuasions have waxed and waned, artists have come and gone and venerable art institutions are not the powerhouses they once were, but still, despite everything, the Glasgow Group remains. A collective of artists looking out for each other and selling their wares without a middleman.
Of course, it has had its dark days. Days when it looked like it had run its course and was reduced to a few members, but it has always re-emerged, a beacon of light which, in this age of digital democracy, has come into its own once again.
Curiously, it is the group’s website, which currently receives some 2500 hits each day, that has brought it – and the Group’s current members – back into the public domain in a way its founder members could never have envisaged back in 1958.
Overseen by past President Ken Palmer, the website’s history section is, in its own right, a fascinating treatise of the recent history of the visual arts in Scotland, painstakingly recording and cataloguing, the many exhibitions and happenings which have taken place over the last five decades.
In the beginning…
The story starts with the discontent of a group of fiery young artists, loosely associated via connections at Glasgow School of Art and Hospitalfield House, Arbroath. With few places to display, let alone sell their wares, and disenchanted with the ‘system’, as represented by established art institutions such as the Royal Glasgow Institute, there they are, impossibly glamorous, slightly serious in aspect, pictured in black and white at the opening of the first ever Young Glasgow Group exhibition at the McLellan Galleries in 1958. [NB: Possibly a good place to use the original pix]
Many are well known names today to observers of the Scottish arts scene. James Spence and his wife Anda Paterson, as always, are there, as are Douglas Abercrombie, Jack Knox and James Morrison, Marjory Clinton, Iain McCulloch, James Watt, Jack Knox and Ewan McAslan. The late William Birnie, who would go on to become a lifelong integral member of the group is missing from the photograph, as is Alan Fletcher, tragically killed earlier that year during a painting trip to Italy. On the sidelines, ever the novelist taking it all in, stands a partly fresh-faced, spectacle-free Alasdair Gray.
The group, which in 1958 had an average age of 22, made quite an impact on the fusty arts scene of the day, but they soon proved to be no one-hit wonder. By 1961, they had held their first exhibition in London at the cutting-edge A.I.A Gallery in London, which brought them to national prominence.
In 1964, feeling that people might confuse them with the Glasgow Boys and also that they were becoming well enough known, a group decision was taken to drop the ‘young’ from the title and The Young Glasgow Group became simply The Glasgow Group.
In this year also, they made the decision to invite non-members to show with them for their 20 Painters exhibition.
Glasgow Corporation gave the Group their first lot of funding in 1967, with another grant following on from the Scottish Arts Council in 1969. In that year also, the celebrated sculptor Benno Schotz was invited to be honorary president.
Artists invited to exhibit during the 1960s included Ronald Birrell, George Devlin, Richard Demarco and Willie Rodger.
It was during the 1970s that the Group really came into its own. Confident in their own ability to ‘put on a show’, its standing within the visual arts world soared and Scottish Arts Council funding enabled them to keep the torch blazing. Their fame was reaching outside Scotland and links were being forged with Wales and Norway. For the first time, exhibitions were staged by the Group outwith the UK.
Artists who came into the Group during this decade included George Wyllie, Alexander Moffat, Ian Mackenzie Smith, John Bellany and Archibald Dunbar Macintosh. The decade ended on a high, with a major tour of the UK, starting at the McLellan Galleries and carrying on to the Edinburgh Festival before heading to four separate venues in Wales and then returning to the Collins Gallery in Glasgow.
This momentum continued throughout the 1980s, which ironically, given the democratic nature of the group, turned out to be the years during which the values of Margaret Thatcher and her government were embedding themselves in the nation’s consciousness.
The Iron Lady may have pronounced that there was ‘no such thing as society’, but in Glasgow, one bunch of artists who preferred to look after their own, turned a deaf ear.
In 1982, the group celebrated their 25th anniversary (marking the setting up of the group in 1957) with an exhibition at the McLellan Galleries of all 32 members, past, present and deceased. Names which crept into this roll call included James Connell, Tom Hutcheson, Dawson Murray, Tom Hovell Shanks and Bill Wright. Benno Schotz, the Honorary President of the group and Sculptor in Ordinary to Her Majesty The Queen in Scotland, exhibited as special guest.
Five years later, in 1987, the close bond with Norway’s visual arts community was enhanced by a joint exhibition with Norwegian artists that toured from Glasgow to Edinburgh, to Skien and Frederickstad.
Although the group lost the McLellan Galleries as a base for their major exhibition of the year, the 1980s ended on a high when they pioneered the use of Tramway in the city’s south side as a visual arts venue to much critical acclaim and then went on to set up their own gallery, Glasgow Group Gallery at 17 Queens Crescent in the west end. This venue was a fixture from 1989 until 1992. Peter Howson, then emerging as a major new talent, was also invited to exhibit with the group as the 1980s drew to a close and the poet Edwin Morgan was now its honorary president.
During 1990, when Glasgow was Cultural Capital of Europe, the Group curated eleven exhibitions which included Welsh, Norwegian, and Basque artists and even mounted an exhibition in Bilbao, Spain. In keeping with their flexible ‘can do’ attitude, Jim Spence and Anda Paterson packed the entire exhibition into their caravan and set off from their home in Cardross. So far, so free-spirited. What wasn’t planned, however, was the fact that they arrived in Bilbao during the rush hour.
As the 1990s took hold, the Glasgow Group continued to exhibit, but paradoxically, despite an increased interest in Scottish contemporary art at home and abroad, the fire that had burned so brightly for the previous four decades was in danger of fizzling out.
The reasons behind this were manifold. The core audience of the group had changed. Supporters were dying off and this also coincided with the loss of the McLellan Galleries as a regular exhibition venue. This also affected organisations such as the RGI and the RSW, which were also struggling to find their place in the visual arts firmament.
The arts landscape in Scotland had altered immeasurably since the establishment of the Glasgow Group in 1957 and its first exhibition in 1958. There were now more commercial galleries than the founder members could ever have imagined would have existed but there was also, at the same time, a limited demand from them for the kind of boundary-pushing work which the Group had prided themselves in delivering.
By the early 1990s, the membership had dwindled to the point at which only Jim Spence, Anda Paterson and Philip Reeves, a member since 1968, were the only regular attendees at meetings. The Group was surviving by the skin of its teeth and it was at this point that
Spence, up until then the group’s only president, felt he should take a step back.
It fell to the painter Dawson Murray, a member since 1975, to step up to the podium and, under his guidance, a regrouping process took place. Contact with European artists was a mainstay of the 1990s and in November 1991, the Group exhibited the work of seven Polish artists from Lodz at the Glasgow Group Gallery in Queens Crescent.
This connection continued when Dawson Murray organised an exchange exhibition with Polish artists in Lodz in 1994.
In 1996, the landscape painter Gregor Smith, a member since 1990, took over as president and in this year, the Group moved to the RGI Kelly Gallery, in Douglas Street, Glasgow, to hold its Annual Exhibition. Annual exhibitions were held here up to and including 2000.
By this stage, membership was creeping up again, as new blood started to make its way into the Group, with names such as Boyd McNichol, Christie Cameron, Ronald Forbes, Jo Linley, Dennis Shields and Joe Hargan starting to appear in the records.
As a new millennium began, the Glasgow Group, after a difficult transitional decade, appeared to be re-establishing its place in the artistic life of Scotland.
One innovation, which tied in with the informality of the times, was the establishment of the Portfolio Show, an event that allowed members and invited artists to sell unframed work in an informal setting. The first of these shows was held in the home of Ken Palmer, who would go on to take over from Smith as president, in 2003.
The year 2000 also saw the establishment of the Group’s website by Palmer and a new direction seemed to be taking shape.
Using a mixture of small and large-scale venues, the group was able to recapture the spirit of adventure that had marked it out from the early days. In 2001, the annual exhibition was held in the Pentagon Business Centre, allowing the showing of large-scale work, an element of the Group’s identity that had been missing for several years.
By 2003, the group had managed to secure the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow for their annual exhibition in June with an innovative Christmas exhibition taking place at the Tron Theatre at the end of the year.
By 2003, there was another change of leadership, with Ken Palmer stepping up to fill the breech as Gregor Smith stepped down. More new blood in the shape of Shona Dougal, Robert Burns, Dominic Snyder, Jim Wylie, David Smith and Judith Spence had signed on the dotted line as members and the contacts they brought to the party changed the group dynamic accordingly.
Shifting venues from Aberfeldy to Aberdeen to Ayr and back to Glasgow, seemed to suit the gypsy spirit of the Group and, by 2007, now with Jim Wylie at the presidential helm, they made a confident return to the Royal Concert Hall for the annual exhibition.
Throughout the decades, through good times and bad, the group has continued to cling on to its all-for-one and one-for-all musketeer approach to showing their art and this year’s 50th anniversary celebrations provide an ideal platform to look forward as well as back.
There is no doubt that the experience of being an artist in Scotland in 2008 is a vastly different one from the working life a young artist could expect back in 1958.
As current president Jim Wylie puts it: “I remember at Glasgow School of Art in the early 1960s being told by my lecturer, Sinclair Thomson, that there were only five or six artists in the whole of Scotland making a living solely from painting and it was true that most of the established artists of the 1960s were also teaching or lecturing.
“Now, affluence and changing public attitudes have made it easier for artists to prosper. Art education changed out of all recognition during my time as a teacher, introducing a high level of understanding of the visual arts while continuing to improve and develop a wide range of skills. The Scottish art scene is vibrant as a result.”
Now, more than at any time its history, the Glasgow Group is at a point when its time has come round again.
More and more artists are grouping together to market and sell their own work via the web. Under the vigilant, creative watch of Ken Palmer, the Glasgow Group wesbite offers an unparalleled mix of history lesson and information on current members, cross-referencing to individual artist’s own websites along the way.
The instant access to art and artists that a good website gives to the public cannot be underestimated but it is the beating heart of the artists behind it who make all the difference. There is still no substitute for looking at and talking about art in an interesting space in the presence of like-minded individuals.
Here’s to the next 50 pugnacious years of Scotland’s longest established artists’ cooperative.
- The story so far
- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org (All work © Jan Patience)