Some of the most popular paintings in the collection are by a group of radical young painters who came to be known as ‘The Glasgow Boys’. They represent the beginnings of modernism in Scottish painting. In the early 1880s, united by their disillusionment with academic painting, they painted contemporary rural subjects, and often worked out of doors sketching and painting directly in front of their subject. They were strongly influenced by the realism of Dutch and French art, especially the Naturalist paintings of Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848 - 1884), and also by the tonal painting of the American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903). The leaders of the group included James Guthrie (1859-1930), who was mostly self-taught, and the Irish-born John Lavery (1856-1941) who, like many of his contemporaries, trained in Paris and worked at the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing. Based in and around Glasgow, the artists exchanged ideas in the Bath Street studio of William York Macgregor (1855-1923) or through working in groups at Cockburnspath (Berwickshire) and Kirkcudbright.
By the late 1880s several artists were beginning to take an interest in Impressionism, Celtic design and the brilliant colours and flattened forms of Japanese prints. Their work was characterised by bold, vigorous, painterly handling and an increasing emphasis on the decorative. George Henry (1858-1943) and Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933) travelled to Japan in 1893-4, while Arthur Melville (1855-1904), who is closely associated with the group, preferred the colour and exoticism of Spain and North Africa.
At this date Glasgow was second city of the Empire, home to a group of wealthy industrialists who supported this new group of artists. They were also encouraged by the art dealer Alexander Reid, who acted as Guthrie’s agent and gave Hornel and Joseph Crawhall (1861-1913) their first solo exhibitions. In 1890 the Glasgow Boys exhibited their work to great acclaim in London and at the Munich International.
The ‘Glasgow School’ of painters benefitted from Scotland’s industrialisation in the nineteenth-century, and the increasing wealth this generated among the middle-classes. Major art collections were formed in Glasgow, which was then as one of the most prominent cities of the British Empire.
Traditionally, Glasgow had been overshadowed by the political, financial and artistic domination of Edinburgh, where artists aspired to study, and in turn, exhibit their work at the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA). Broadly speaking, a divide emerged between the older established members of the RSA in Edinburgh such as Horatio McCulloch Scottish (1805 - 1867) and Peter Graham (1836 - 1921) who painted romantic Highland views (dubbed the ‘gluepots)', and the younger Glasgow painters who saw this old style as sentimental and un-naturalistic. Instead, the Glasgow Boys sent their work to The Royal Glasgow Institute, which was far more enlightened and progressive then the RSA.
Glasgow’s new self-made middle-class clientele were eager to adorn the walls of their new houses, and like the younger artists, these new potential patrons had more modern tastes. The younger painters admired the naturalistic scenes of everyday life by their counterparts in Europe, particularly the work of the Barbizon painters in France, and the Dutch Hague School. One painter in particular attracted their attention; the French realist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage. He was breaking with tradition and painting something new – the real life that surrounded him in his home town of Damvillers. Guthrie and the other painters saw Bastien-Lepage’s work in Paris, London, and at the Glasgow Institute, and were inspired by his approach to his surroundings.
Another Glasgow painter inspired by Bastien-Lepage was John Lavery. He met with Guthrie and the other Boys in the studio of William York Macgregor, who held informal classes during the winter at his Bath Street studio. It was here that these artists really started to work collectively. Macgregor encouraged experimentation and creativity, as well as an open and honest attitude that encouraged mutual criticism and a sharing of ideas among the artists. They all shared an admiration for naturalism and painting out of doors (en plein air), but they were not bound by a single doctrine. Although their association with Glasgow was strong, in reality they were painting all over Scotland as well as England and France.
A central figure in the group was James Guthrie. He spent two years (1879-81) apprenticed to the painter John Pettie (1839 - 1893) in London, but this training was traditional and in the grand, academic style. During the summer months Guthrie returned to Scotland, and spent his time on sketching tours of the countryside, often accompanied by Edward Arthur Walton (1860 - 1922).
Guthrie, Walton and George Henry (1853-1943) would all paint together out of doors, directly in front of nature. In the summer of 1881, Guthrie and his friends visited the Trossachs, but not to paint the magnificent highland landscape. Instead, they focussed on the everyday life and work of the people who lived on the land, adopting a more naturalistic approach. They wanted to do away with patronisingly romantic scenes of ‘noble peasants’ in dramatic (often tragic) circumstances, in favour of showing real people in their own environment.
In 1883, Guthrie (who was effectively the leader of the group) had ‘discovered’ Cockburnspath, a small village on the Berwicksire coast. He began working there focusing initially on images of field labourers, and encouraged a number of his artist friends to join him. Having visited France in 1882, Guthrie was seemingly trying to emulate Bastien-Lepage’s success in capturing the life of a single village in his hometown of Damvillers. In time, however, Guthrie's work developed more decorative tendencies, and a similar interest in colour and surface is evident in the work of Arthur Melville and, to a lesser extent, Walton, both of whom worked alongside Guthrie. In the autumn/winter of 1883-4 Guthrie, Melville and Walton worked together at Cockburnspath producing some of their most important works, several of which are in the National Galleries of Scotland's collection.
The Glasgow Boys' most intense period was the decade between 1880-1890, when some of their most bold and innovative paintings were created. This is essentially where modern painting in Scotland began, and their work freed subsequent generations of artists to explore colour and look beyond their own creative heritage. The decorative and design element in much of their work is echoed in the work of Celtic Revival artists, but perhaps their most enduring legacy was that Glasgow was now established as a serious and innovative artistic centre.