The Glasgow Girls were a group of women artists and designers active in Glasgow at the turn of the twentieth century.
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Who were the Glasgow Girls?
The term ‘Glasgow Girls’ was coined by William Buchanan in an essay he contributed to the catalogue for a Glasgow Boys exhibition held in 1968. Though he was using this title to show that these artists were the female equivalents of their well-known male counterparts, it does not reflect the personal and professional complexity of this group. They pursued different styles and worked in a range of artforms. Some formed discreet groups while others chose to work alone. Even residence in Glasgow was not a unifying factor as many lived and worked elsewhere in Scotland.
They were connected, however, through shared experiences and their continued efforts to support one another. Artists who are understood to be ‘Glasgow Girls’ include Bessie MacNicol, Jessie Marion King, Margaret and Frances Macdonald, Helen Paxton Brown, Stansmore Dean and Annie French.
Glasgow: A Prosperous City
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Glasgow was a booming industrial centre. Economic prosperity created abundant opportunities for artists and designers.
At the same time, the Glasgow School of Art experienced a golden age under the leadership of Francis Newbery. Fra Newbery (as he was known) and his wife Jessie Newbery pioneered a more inclusive approach to art and design training. Crucially, they afforded the Decorative Arts such as textiles, ceramics and jewellery-making, the same status as the Fine Arts, like painting and sculpture. This allowed artists to excel in areas that had previously been ignored in art education.
Many of the female students formed close friendships and rented studios together in the city centre. For example, the studio that Jessie M King and Helen Paxton Brown shared at 141 Bath Street, Glasgow became a hub where a likeminded community of artists, writers and patrons could meet. In 1882, a group of these women founded the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists to provide a dedicated forum where they could promote their work.
Styles and Influences
The Glasgow Girls employed a wide variety of techniques and developed a range of artistic styles.
Two of the most prominent painters of the group were Bessie MacNicol and Stansmore Dean. Both studied at Glasgow School of Art and subsequently went to the Académie Colarossi in Paris where they could study from the life model. Dean’s paintings reflect the influence of the Aesthetic Movement while MacNicol’s style became more decorative after she met E.A. Hornel in 1896.
Those who worked in design-based artforms were more closely associated with the development of the Glasgow Style. Inspired by aspects of the Arts and Craft movement, the Celtic Revival and European Art Nouveau, this style was characterised by flowing, linear motifs derived from nature. Artists like Jessie M King, Annie French and Jessie Newbery would then apply this distinctive style to everything from book illustrations, posters, wallpaper and fabrics to jewellery and homewares.
This all-embracing approach to art and design also defined the work of ‘The Four’ – Margaret and Frances Macdonald and their husbands Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert McNair.
Reputation at home and abroad
Some of the Glasgow Girls were able to show their oil and watercolour paintings in exhibitions held by art institutions in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London. Progressive publications like The Studio circulated their prints and engraved reproductions of their works to a wider audience. As a result, many were asked to participate in major international exhibitions held in Munich, Berlin, Vienna and Turin. Their success led to solo shows back home in Britain. In addition to the critical recognition they received from exhibitions, objects that they designed were purchased for use or display in domestic settings and public spaces such as tea rooms.
The Revival in the 1990s
After World War I, the Glasgow style largely fell out of favour. Though there were major retrospectives for their near contemporaries, the Glasgow Boys and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the work of the Glasgow Girls was forgotten or deliberately edited out of art historical accounts of this period. It was not until 1990 when Jude Burkhauser organised the first survey exhibition of their work Glasgow Girls: Women in Art and Design 1880-1920 that their accomplishments were finally recognised. Her research highlighted not only women’s vital contribution to the development of the Glasgow Style but also their capacity to overcome the inequalities they faced in society at that time. Their legacy continues as museums and galleries seek to address gaps in their collection by acquiring and displaying more examples of work by the Glasgow Girl artists.