No journey of mine seems to be without a little drama and trying to get to Glasgow in early January in gale force winds should not be attempted by the fainthearted. When my alarm went off at 5.30am, I had a feeling this wouldn’t be my smoothest journey.
Although Virgin Trains are great at replying on twitter, they’re not so good at communicating to those actually on their trains. We didn’t even manage to leave Euston before having to change trains – Train One was apparently defective and unfixable. Not a good start. Train Number Two abandoned us at Preston (a friend has since commented that just the thought of me stuck at Preston made him laugh) where due to re-platforming we were able to experience the delights of every station platform. I think they were trying to keep us warm by moving us around so frequently! Train Number Three, however, was a winner and, although late, nearly jeopardising my schedule, it delivered us safe and sound.
After a wonderful, oversized pizza at the Firebird, we headed to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – the raison d’être for this whole trip. My learned companion is studying for an MA in Egyptology and her thesis focuses on Sekhmet statues. Rather ironically, the two here are on loan from the British Museum. After the academic necessities were completed, we went to explore the museum. There is no denying that Kelvingrove has an amazing and broad collection but the curation struck me as rather messy. The rooms are thematic though, often, without coherent logic; dead-ends confront you and, without rhyme or reason, random objects crop up at regular intervals. Kelvingrove is also very child-orientated in its forms of display; they clearly know their punters but this method often excludes a more mature audience.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Own photograph.
I was pleasantly surprised to come across Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross – a controversial painting from 1951. It is displayed alongside a remarkable ink study that was given, by the artist, to the then director of the Glasgow Art Gallery. The drawing highlights Dalí’s daring in working towards the extreme angle of Christ’s body.
Salvador Dalí, Study of Christ of St John of the Cross, 1952. Own photograph.
The room of French art includes a Van Gogh alongside works by Pissarro, Seurat, Millet and Monet (I guess the room is looking at art painted in France rather than at French artists) but offers a more traditional gallery experience with a coherent layout and more structured feel. Following this is a room of Fragile Art – I didn’t know what to expect but it seems this is a rather strange term being coined for works on paper. There are some great things at Kelvingrove, if you have the patience to look, but the mess deterred us and, instead, we left and walked through the courtyards of the splendid University of Glasgow. With only time to admire its architecture, we hurried past the Hunterian Museum – one of the leading university museums in the UK, showing the vast and varied private collection of its founder, Dr William Hunter (older brother to John who founded London’s Hunterian) – to Mackintosh House.
The Hunterian Museum. Own photograph.
Glasgow is famous for two Mackintoshes – the inventor of the waterproof raincoat, Charles Mackintosh, and the unrelated artist, designer and architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh House comprises the reassembled interiors of the house lived in by the Mackintoshes from 1906-14 (what was 6 Florentine Terrace, approximately 100 metres away). Although the house was demolished in the 1960s, the original features and designs were preserved and great pains have been taken to ensure the sequence of rooms exactly reflects its forerunner. Its recreation was no easy task and, although not everything about this house pretends to be accurate, the reproduction is as faithful as possible. It was decided not to replicate the sandstone façade of the original house and, instead, the key features (the front door and principal windows) are encased in rough cast concrete.
Mackintosh House. Own photograph.
Particularly striking is the studio-drawing room on the first floor. The geometry, unity and clarity of this L-shaped interior is stunning. Flooded with light, the rear section was, fittingly, used as a studio where each of the three walls was filled with a major object as its centrepiece – a gesso panel by his wife, Margaret Macdonald, a white bookcase and the dark-stained writing cabinet. This is more for display than practical use and it lacks much of the additional support required to act as a functional everyday object but there can be no debate about the beauty of its design. I would say this room was Mackintosh at his best but every time I see one of his works I am blown away and have a new favourite. To my mind, there can be no debate about the perfection of everything he did.
The studio-drawing room at Mackintosh House. Image courtesy of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2012 and via www.glasgow.ac.uk/hunterian.
The second floor was shut which meant we missed seeing the bedroom but we saw enough to be captivated and eager for the Mackintosh on day two of my itinerary.
The dining room at Mackintosh House. Image courtesy of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2012 and via www.glasgow.ac.uk/hunterian.
Mackintosh House is found within The Hunterian Art Gallery, the rest of which is also brilliant and made up for my disappointment at our first stop. As well as housing a small, superb collection of 18th century portraits (where I happily went back to my roots), two aspects particularly struck me. One focused on the art of the poster with works from the gallery’s print collection, focusing on posters as important social-historic documents. Including works by Mackintosh (of course) and Lautrec’s Jane Avril, which I’ve recently seen at The Courtauld, the posters all successfully combine simplified forms, bold colours and dramatic viewpoints.
Posters at the Hunterian Art Gallery. Own photograph.
The other aspect was the works by James McNeil Whistler; I had no idea that the University of Glasgow houses one of the world’s pre-eminent collections of Whistler’s works having been bequeathed the entire estate by his heir, Rosalind Birnie Philip. The gallery’s airy layout is perfect for his seascapes; painted ‘en plein air’, these are small-scale, portable panels to which Whistler directly applied paint. The near-abstracted detail is jewel-like.
The Hunterian Art Gallery. Image courtesy of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2012 and via www.glasgow.ac.uk/hunterian.
The other fascinating find was his cartoon for The Fighting Peacocks – a full-size, highly-expressive drawing for the principal mural in the Peacock Room. Pricked for transfer, the work shows Whistler’s retaliation to a quarrel. Having overstepped his brief by decorating the entire room, Frederick Leyland refused to pay beyond the price agreed for the smaller commission. The confrontational peacocks symbolise Whistler as art and Leyland as money, with coins scattered at his feet.
James McNeil Whistler, Cartoon of Rich and Poor Peacocks, 1876. Image via www.huntsearch.gla.ac.uk.
Thursday evening is late night at GoMA (Glasgow’s Modern Art Gallery) and so I was able to squeeze in another visit before dinner. Downstairs, You, Me, Something Else considers the definition of sculpture today, looking at the progression of sculpture and how it has radically changed over time. The room is intended to act as a 21st century sculpture court with objects suspended from the ceiling, leaning against columns, lying on the floor or, presented in a more traditional style, on plinths. The media is varied but the artists are united by a common concern for physical experience and material form. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you’re an architectural fan), the architecture dominates much of the works but Andrew Miller’s Shaded, a tower of lampshades and fluorescent lights, stood out for me as the most effective work in this show.
You, Me, Something Else at GoMA. Own photograph.
After a long day in heels, we were starting to feel tired so took the lift to the top of the gallery and worked our way down. Upstairs is an exhibition celebrating Glasgow Museum’s recent purchases of international contemporary art, understandably prioritising Scottish artists and those who studied at the Glasgow School of Art. The main piece is a work by Martin Boyce, comprising daybeds, a bin, a wall-mounted mobile, ventilation grills and fluorescent ‘light-trees’, that aims to evoke a cinematic moment in a fictitious night-time urban environment. As always with Boyce, the references are wide-ranging and complex, making you consider the work on many different levels.
Martin Boyce, Our Love is Like the Earth, the Sun, the Trees, the Birth, 2003. Own photograph.
Continuing down the stairs, we came across Atelier Public, a public artists’ studio to be used by gallery visitors, and an exhibition of works by Alasdair Gray – not really to my taste but he is obviously a talented draughtsman.
We were shattered and our bodies had gone into art-overload. After dinner at Stravaigin, we collapsed at Saint Jude’s on Bath Street in our divine penthouse suite, re-energising ourselves in readiness for day two of this Glasgow adventure.
Saint Jude’s. Own photograph.