The Glasgow Girls were a group of women artists and designers active in Glasgow at the turn of the twentieth century.

Norah Neilson Gray Mother and Child 1920s

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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 KingMargaret 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.


Glossary terms

Glasgow Boys

The Glasgow Boys were a loose group of young artists that represented the beginnings of modernism in Scottish painting. In the early 1880s, 'the boys’ were united by their disillusionment with traditional academic painting, with its strong focus on historical subjects and high levels of finish. Instead, they painted contemporary rural subjects, often working out of doors and painting directly onto the canvas.

Art Nouveau

A decorative art style popular in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is characterised by stylised flowing lines of all kinds, most notably the distinctive “whiplash” curve, which was used to illustrate many forms including tendrils, plant stems, flames, waves and flowing hair.

Arts and Crafts movement

British movement of the late nineteenth century which sought to revive handcrafts and improve design in an age of increasing mass-production. Key thinkers associated with the movement are William Morris and John Ruskin.