In Focus: The Glasgow Boys, the Scottish painters inspired by an iconic French Naturalist

Mary Miers revisits the work of a group of rebellious young artists who challenged the artistic establishment and became an international sensation — and who are now the subject of a new exhibition. Pictures courtesy of the Fleming Collection.

For all that the romanticised image of Scotland continues to entrance, in the late 19th century it was challenged by a loose affiliation of artist-friends who, railing against the Victorian diet of darkly varnished history paintings and brooding Highland landscapes, sought out the gentler terrain and steady light of southern Scotland and other climes and blazed a trail with their en plein air scenes of ordinary rural life.

Inspired by the French Realists, the Glasgow Boys, as they called themselves — most were brought up or trained in Glasgow — admired Courbet and Millet, but their hero was Naturalist master Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–84), who documented French peasant life with dispassionate honesty.

 

After serving in the Franco-Prussian war, he had retreated to paint village life at his birthplace of Damvillers. Taking their cue from him, the Boys immersed themselves in fishing and farming communities, where they focused on incidental scenes — a hind’s daughter in a mud-clodded kailyard; potato gatherers; a boy herding cattle; children playing; a gaggle of geese — painting without anecdote or sentimentality and with an emphasis on tonality. Some adopted his technique of detailing certain elements in high definition against a more generalised background, his flattened perspectives and broad, square-headed brushstrokes.

In 1883, James Guthrie and his friends Edward Walton and Joseph Crawhall migrated to Cockburnspath, where they formed a summer retreat, Guthrie staying on to paint through the winter.

Over the next two years, others such as George Henry, who had painted with them in the Trossachs, descended on the Berwickshire village, so that, in summer, nearly every cottage had its artist lodger and easels could be seen pitched in fields, gardens and by the harbour.

 

Meanwhile, in 1883, Belfast born John Lavery, who had studied at Glasgow School of Art, joined a group of artists and writers at Grez-sur-Loing near Fontainebleau. Established in the early 1870s, the colony was a conscious emulation of that created at Barbizon in the 1830s by painters such as Millet and Daubigny.

George Henry’s Playmates. Credit: Fleming Collection via ‘The Glasgow Boys & Girls’ at The Granary Gallery

Lavery was among the young Glasgow Boys — others included William Kennedy, Alexander Roche and Thomas Millie Dow — who had enrolled in the Paris ateliers before moving to Grez. They absorbed first hand the bold brushwork and tonal values of modern French painters, although only Lavery actually met Bastien-Lepage, who advised him always to carry a sketchbook. Continue reading