NEW DISCOVERIES:

GUTHRIE AND THE GLASGOW BOYS

  • When The Glasgow Boys rose to prominence in the 1880s, there was a sense of wonder at how a group of Scottish painters could hold such sway in the academies, salons and secessions of western Europe and North America. The group’s firm grasp on modernity brought a new lease of life to the mêlée of ‘fin de siècle’ styles. Recently, two pictures by Sir James Guthrie have come to light: Boy with a Straw (1886), which was known only by a black and white image; and Cambuskenneth Ferry (1888), which had remained untraced since its execution. Both works were gifted to William Gardiner, the artist’s uncle and patron, during a frustrated creative period for Guthrie, presumably as a way of thanks for his family’s continued support. They have passed down by descent through generations of the Gardiner family, never shown before to the public.

    • Sir James Guthrie HRA PRSA HRSW Boy with a straw, 1886 signed and dated '86 oil on canvas 16 1/4 x 12 inches
      Sir James Guthrie HRA PRSA HRSW
      Boy with a straw, 1886
      signed and dated '86
      oil on canvas
      16 1/4 x 12 inches
    • Sir James Guthrie HRA PRSA HRSW Cambuskenneth Ferry, 1888 signed pastel on paper 10 x 17 1/2 inches
      Sir James Guthrie HRA PRSA HRSW
      Cambuskenneth Ferry, 1888
      signed
      pastel on paper
      10 x 17 1/2 inches
  • The suave modernity of Glasgow and the surrounding area was initially not a thing to celebrate. However, the Glasgow Boys placed themselves at the forefront of British art,  primed to take on an aesthetic which signalled the beginnings of modernism in Scotland. Their decision to root themselves in the country was undoubtedly a response to the creative surge from the Continent, which fundamentally changed the way that artists engaged with contemporary life. French Naturalist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage influenced every aspect of their practice and technique; they even adopted his use of broad two-inch brushes. His example of portraying lived experience, particularly rural, rather than urban, swiftly became the criterion The dual influence of Bastien-Lepage and the French Realist painter Gustave Courbet resulted in a renewed artistic conviction for The Boys: contemporary reality could only truly be revealed by depicting an unsentimental record of rural life.

  • This enthusiasm for a new and radical naturalism was undimmed by the Glasgow drizzle. James Guthrie, and pictures such as...

    This enthusiasm for a new and radical naturalism was undimmed by the Glasgow drizzle. James Guthrie, and pictures such as To Pastures New (1883), raised the standard. There was nothing sentimental about his goose girl. This was new painting of an impressive kind - fellow Glasgow Boy John Lavery claimed that seeing Guthrie’s painting persuaded him to stay on in Glasgow rather than return to France, such was the advanced state of modern Scottish art. Guthrie’s drive and talent established him as the leader of the group of like-minded artists. He left his studies in law at Glasgow in 1877 to pursue a career in art; he was largely self-taught. The tonal palette and unsentimental vision of Bastien-Lepage’s painting was of enormous importance to Guthrie in particular. His square brush technique and puttylike textures were adopted more enthusiastically by Guthrie than anyone else in the group. As such, the quotidian became the subject of scrutiny. Filtered through the lens of French innovations, he caught the mood of the time, and his early success convinced others that the imperial city of Glasgow was the place to be.

     

     

    Sir James Guthrie HRA PRSA HRSW 1859-1930

    To Pastures New, 1883

    oil on canvas

    Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

  • Commenting on our recent discovery of Guthrie’s Boy with a Straw, leading scholar Kenneth McConkey noted that ‘as his work developed throughout the mid-1880s, Guthrie faced insurmountable difficulties that at one point led him to think of abandoning his career as a painter. The astonishing succès d'estime of his early work could not be sustained and even medium-sized canvases such as Schoolmates (Musée des Beaux Arts, Ghent) took much longer to complete than anticipated, while large works such as Fieldworkers sheltering from a Shower and The Stonebreaker were either delayed, destroyed or dismembered. We should look therefore to the few extant smaller works of these crucial years in order to gain access to Guthrie’s thinking. They reveal a formidable talent at moments when not under strain. Boy with a Straw, dated 1886, has a fresh and fluent handling. Guthrie’s brushwork is sketchy, spontaneous and expressive. The trees may be moving in a light breeze; the haystack and foreground debris are swiftly noted, but the artist sees no reason to sharpen contours or finish forms. This boy might be posing, yet having pulled a piece of straw from the haystack, he now engages both artist and spectator. There may be a story, but it remains untold. Guthrie’s important little canvas coincides with Walton’s A Daydream and may even have suggested what became its essential mise-en-scène. The relationship is obvious: Guthrie’s boy, like Walton’s girl, sits facing the spectator with his legs splayed out, and boots upturned. Beyond the figures in both canvases, a frieze of trees mottles the sky, forming a screen that verges on the decorative. Yet where Walton perfects his picture for exhibition, Guthrie retains that sense of the temporary unfinished encounter. In this brief moment of calm in the summer of 1886, when a boy with a straw in his hand marches up a hillside and sits before him, Guthrie’s realisation was complete – and for Glasgow School painters there was now a new visual turn.’

  • Indeed, it is clear that upon his return to Stirling in 1888, Guthrie had found the rural subject matter that...
    Sir James Guthrie HRA PRSA HRSW 1859-1930
    Cambuskenneth Ferry, 1888
    signed
    pastel on paper
    10 x 17 1/2 inches

    Indeed, it is clear that upon his return to Stirling in 1888, Guthrie had found the rural subject matter that he sought: the ferry crossing on the River Forth at the nearby village of Cambuskenneth, women at work in the rope factory, or with farm-labourers in adjacent fields. Whilst he had used pastel previously, it was the versatility of the medium that allowed Guthrie to develop and innovate. Out of favour since its earlier use in the eighteenth century, it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that pastel became popular again. Guthrie was amongst one of the most enthusiastic and prolific artists to take it up. He was also the most accomplished of all the Glasgow Boys in its use. Marking this resurgence were three exhibitions dedicated to works in pastel at The Grosvenor Gallery, London, between 1888 and 1890, in which Guthrie exhibited.

     

    Pastel’s renaissance began in France with artists such as Degas and, as ever, British artists were influenced by continental innovation. Pastel appealed to Guthrie for its portability and the facility with which it could render a scene. He admired the Whistlerian style of painting, and in the Pall Mall Gazette a critic reviewing the Dowdeswells’ exhibition of 1890 observed of Guthrie’s pastels: “The artist has seen Mr Whistler’s work and … without losing individuality, he has profited thereby.”

     

    The innovation hinted at in this comment is borne out in our picture of the ferry at Cambuskenneth. The soft, powdery quality of pastel has allowed Guthrie to capture the quickly changing and diffuse light of evening. The horizontal blending emphasises the composition and is put to especially effective use in its suggestion of moving water, alternately blending and drawing with the pastel to indicate the currents, eddies and reflections. Tree trunks and gable ends of buildings catch the last of the day’s light and intersect the emphatically horizontal composition. An indeterminate number of people are either alighting or boarding the boat and an aproned lady descends the path to the water’s edge. Guthrie’s free handling is indicative of the motion and unsteadiness of the vessel. In a picture where much is suggestion, the gaslight from a window and reflections of it in the water give a vivid focal point. Twilight’s transitory nature was further reason for Guthrie’s choice of pastel. As stated by Dr Freya Spoor, pastel “utilised pure colour which remained true, regardless of light source” – unlike oil paint which both needed to be mixed in advance and changed in different lights. Pastel gave truth.


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