© Jan Patience
|Dumbarton Rock by Dan Ferguson|
River Annick, Kilmaurs by John Cunningham
The Airdrie Boys: A Collection of work by John Cunningham & Dan Ferguson
RGI Kelly Gallery, 118 Douglas Street, Glasgow
0141 248 6386; www.royalglasgowinstitute.org
Until 1 November
The walls of Anne Ferguson’s home in the west end of Glasgow are looking unusually bare this autumn. They’ve been like that since the beginning of September, when she removed paintings by her late father, the artist Dan Ferguson, from their usual position ahead of an outing to Dunoon.
After a fortnight on show at Dunoon Burgh Hall as part of Cowal Open Studios, the paintings returned to Glasgow, where they now hang at the RGI Kelly Gallery alongside work by Dan’s lifelong friend, John Cunningham.
The exhibition, which also features pin-sharp caricatures by Ferguson as well as genius-tinged sketchbooks and other memorabilia relating to their closely-linked careers, is called The Airdrie Boys.
This title is a nod to the fact both men both hailed from the Lanarkshire town of Airdrie and not from Glasgow, the city they made their own during a long association with Glasgow School of Art (GSA) and Glasgow Art Club.
Hugely influential to generations of artists who passed through GSA in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, ‘Danny and John’ are still fondly remembered. Ferguson, the elder by just a year, died aged 68 in 1993, while Cunningham passed away in 1998 at the age of 72.
“It feels strange not to have dad’s paintings around me,” Anne Ferguson says. “I feel a bit lost without them. My favourite painting, Dolly Walker, painted in 1968, normally hangs on my bedroom wall and I miss it.”
Down in Alloway, Ayrshire, the walls of Cunningham’s nephew, the poet and academic, Alan Riach, are similarly bereft. Several of the works on show portray Alan, Anne and other family members; captured at various stages of their lives.
The faces of Ferguson and Cunningham are everywhere. In self-portrait form and thanks to impish caricatures by Ferguson. There is even a ceramic tile of Ferguson’s handsome face made by Alasdair Gray in 1960. This sits alongside a delicate 1959 pencil drawing of Gray by Ferguson. Ferguson and Gray first met in 1959 when they both taught art at Wellshot Road Junior Secondary School in Shettleston.
Ferguson and Cunningham were artists and teachers to their flamboyant bootstraps.
In 1993, just after Ferguson died, former student, Steven Campbell, said of him: “I owe a debt to him for allowing what little confidence I have in my art, which was then very little, to grow. He was central to my life and changed it. I even copied his hair and beard style.”
Cunningham also presented a charismatic face to the world. Friend and former GSA colleague, James Cosgrove, says of him: “An elegantly dressed man, John could have been mistaken for Augustus John as he leaned across to peer at a painting, his long hair swept back, a colourful handkerchief spilling from his tweed jacket like an unfurling flag. His knowledge of materials and process in relation to oil-painting was superlative and much in demand by students – even in their final year.”
Born within 13 months of each another the two artists were best pals as boys and this friendship continued through thick and thin. It took them from family holidays with the Cunninghams to Maidens in the 1930s, to Airdrie Academy, to GSA. At GSA, their student days were interrupted by war-time, with Ferguson serving in the RAF and Cunningham with the Scots Guards.
After spells teaching in secondary schools, both returned to GSA, where they taught until retiral in the mid-1980s.
When Ferguson died in June 1993, John wrote about him in this newspaper: “His paintings are of a very romantic nature reflecting his own personality in a wide variety of themes – landscape, still life, interiors, self-portraits and rather gentle Chagall-like compositions. He was also an outstanding draughtsman who often fused his sense of humour with his incisive biting line into caricatures of his friends and others. But he was always gentle and never malicious in this field.”
Riach says of his Uncle John: “All his paintings show the determined self-discipline of the artist whose commitment is total but, and in equal measure, the exuberance of pleasure in life’s abundance, in the landscapes and seascapes of the west of Scotland, in the grace precision, the measurements of sensual apprehension, in the still lifes.”
All this – and more – is writ large on the walls at the Kelly.
It would be fantastic to see a bigger version of this exhibition in a major public gallery in Scotland. Not only are The Airdrie Boys worthy of a whole chapter in the art history book of the mid-twentieth century for their own art, as this show reveals, their influence down the generations is unquestionable.