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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 janpatience@me.com (All work © Jan Patience)

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The Glasgow Girls




Top, self-portrait of Bessie MacNicol (1869-1904)painted around 1894. I found myself very drawn to the story of Bessie, who seemed to be a hugely gifted artist rated by her male peers, The Glasgow Boys (no mean feat). She died in childbirth at the age of just 35.

Below, Untitled crayon and watercolour sketch by Helen Paxton Brown (1876-1956)

This feature appeared in the July/August issue of Homes & Interiors Scotland magazine. It's on sale for another week or so...

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it is impossible to conjure up the vast gender gulf that existed between men and women back in the dying days of the 19th century.
It was an era when women were universally considered the weaker sex. Their place was firmly in the home and, although the suffrage movement cranked up in Scotland around 1870, it would be almost 50 years before women were afforded the same voting rights as men.
As the starchy Victorian era drew to a close, in drawing rooms throughout the west of Scotland, where middle-class women routinely applied themselves to arts and crafts, a quiet insurgence was brewing alongside the Lipton’s tea.
The full impact of this design-led revolution, which had a lasting impact on what came to be known as Glasgow Style, would not begin to be appreciated until the latter half of the 20th century.
In 1988, an exhibition, Glasgow Girls: Women in the Art School at Glasgow School of Art catapulted a group of hitherto unknown women artists who had studied at the school from 1880 to 1920, into the public’s design radar.
The quality of the dazzling array of work produced by these pioneering women artists and makers, which included paintings, etchings, design drawings, embroidered panels, painted ceramics, jewellery and metal work - all in the ‘Glasgow Style’ - was breathtaking.
Artists and makers in this new Glasgow Girls ensemble included Margaret MacDonald (wife of Charles Rennie Mackintosh) and her sister Frances, Bessie MacNicol, the Gilmour sisters, Ann Macbeth, Jessie M King, Jessie Newberry, Norah Neilson Gray and many others.
Today, as their west coast contemporaries, The Glasgow Boys, enjoy a resurgence of fame thanks to a major exhibition at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove gallery and the Royal Academy in London, the work of The Glasgow Girls also falls into the spotlight in Kirkcudbright this summer.
This small picturesque town in rural Galloway has long had a reputation as an artists’ haven. Lured by its unspoilt charms and an easy passage via the new railway line, several of the Glasgow Boys set up a summer camp there in the latter half of the 19th century.
When the artist E.A.Taylor asked Kirkcudbright-born and bred Glasgow Boy, E.A. Hornel why he thought Kirkcudbright was so popular with artists, he replied: “Well, it's a fine old town and not too big, but big enough to keep you from vegetating.”
It wasn’t just the ‘boys’ who were drawn to Kirkcudbright. Several Glasgow Girls lived and worked in the town, including Jessie M King, famed for her book illustrations, jeweller Mary Thew, and Agnes Harvey, an accomplished metal worker. King married Taylor and the couple became a fixture of the creative scene in the town.
Never known as The Glasgow Girls during their lifetime, the name is apt in that all the women connected to this loose grouping of fine and decorative artists were linked as students and/or teachers at Glasgow School of Art (GSA).
The school had been established in 1845 as a Government School of Design with the aim of training apprentices and artisans who would improve the quality of design on offer to Glasgow manufacturers.
By the late 1880s, three quarters of the students were men who attended evening or early morning classes. The remaining quarter were day students - mostly women seeking a fine art education. These women were either training to be teachers, or using the college to access further education at a time when women were barred from attending university.
The school entered into one of the most dynamic phases of its evolution in 1885, with the arrival of Frances ‘Fra’ Newberry as Director.
Newberry was convinced art schools should not just produce artisans, but fine artists and designers who would in turn set a style agenda for the wider public. An early feminist, Newberry sought to provide equal opportunities and encouragement to female students. The febrile atmosphere he created at GSA at this time resulted in women competing on equal terms with men.
The benchmark of artistic success on a national playing field were awards and medals given out by a government body called The Science and Art Department in South Kensington and in the early 1890s, a slew of female students from GSA, including Francis Newberry’s wife, Jessie Newberry, Frances Macdonald, Agnes Harvey and Jessie Keppie, were sweeping the boards at these awards ­ for which there were 16,000 submissions every year.
Within the art school, the influence of hands-on tutors and rigorous training combined with several other factors to produce an elite group of artists, both male and female.
At this time, there was also a growing interest in the Aesthetic Movement and Japanese Art, as well as the work of artists such as Jan Toorop and Aubrey Beardsley. International art journals such as Ver Sacrum, Dekorative Kunst and The Studio, were also widely read at GSA. The result was a melting pot of ideas and philosophies which began to bear fruit as Newberry’s reign got into its stride.
Among the most influential in terms of their innovative approach was a group known simply as The Four. Newberry had noticed similarities in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Herbert McNair and the Macdonald sisters, Margaret and Frances. He encouraged them to work together and the first group exhibition of their work, in Glasgow in 1894, provoked a storm of criticism and praise in equal measure.
The press were quick to deride the elongated symbolic images with attenuated, stylised human and interlaced plant forms created by the Macdonald sisters and The Four were quickly dubbed The Spook School.
Another huge influence on The Four was the revival of interest in folk art traditions across Europe and in Scotland, this took the form of a Celtic revival. The distinctive interlacing zoomorphic forms in illuminated manuscripts and stone carvings provided an alternative artistic aesthetic and a more localised basis for some of the symbolism in the work of The Four.
The group’s work morphed into to a strongly cohesive design philosophy and shared vocabulary of motifs used in a variety of different media which came to be used widely.
So it was that the familiar forms of roses, birds in flight, butterflies, elongated human figures and curves, contrasted with taut lines and a restricted palette of muted colours came to speak to us all in a language that is instantly recognisable as The Glasgow Style.
The Glasgow Girls may not have been recognised fully in their day, but their influence and artwork can still communicate the excitement and focus which they found in a shared philosophy which stretched way beyond the drawing rooms of the west of Scotland.

The Glasgow Girls at Kirkcudbright Town Hall
July 3 ­ August 30
www.artiststown.co.uk

Then Glasgow School of Art from November 19.

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