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Monday, 17 February 2014

Gavin Alston, Mural Painter and teacher at Glasgow School of Art.

Jill Bernhardi, a student at Glasgow School of Art in 1951, recalls her first year as a student and remembers her teacher, Gavin Alston


In January this year I received an incredibly touching email from Jill Bernhardi, who was taught by my uncle, Gavin Alston, at Glasgow School of Art in the early 1950s.  Gavin taught in the non- diploma course at GSA for several years after he completed his training (1946- 1950) at GSA. I have asked her permission to print it here. 

'Dear Susan McFarlane,

I came upon your website whilst writing about my time at the Glasgow School of Art. In 1951 aged sixteen I was the youngest student there. One of our teachers was your uncle, Gavin Alston. His passion for art was inspirational - I can 'see' him now crashing his way into the classroom, colliding with unoccupied desks and I have so often recalled his teaching whilst I have been painting through the intervening years. I hope that this, in some small way, makes up or the loss of his mural works, which is, indeed, sad. 

With every good wish and memories of a different world.


Jill Bernhardi'

We have exchanged emails since and her information has re-enforced the vivid picture I have of Gavin, gained from my mother’s stories and from his striking and powerful art, as an incredibly charismatic and talented artist and teacher.  I record the following from Jill’s description of his art class…


‘Waiting for another teacher to arrive, somewhat late, there was much classroom chatter when suddenly, the door burst open and there he was – a determined character with hands thrust into the pockets of his tweed jacket.  He crashed into empty desks scattering them on his way to the front of the class, students, silent now, sitting bolt upright in their places – there would be no 'messing about' with this one.

 Gavin Alston had arrived to teach the next lesson.  And teach he did. He announced that the medium to be used would be gouache which he pronounced 'gwarsh'. Horizons didn't have to be mid-landscape – better to be a third or two thirds.  Composition, light and shade were uppermost.  A good work of art should be totally connected and one should never be able to divide it at any point, thus making two paintings.

He set projects and homework which, when completed, were set up to receive a 'crit' either from  himself, which meant short, very much to the point and therefore honest, like mine for the set theme 'Work'.  I depicted two workmen, one leaning on a shovel and the other sitting, drinking from a mug. “Composition excellent!” he said and continued “Drawing abominable! - Men don't have bulbous bottoms!”  - or from the Vice Principal (H Jefferson Barnes)  – not quite so short or to the point and therefore a touch economic with the honesty. 

Gavin Alston's enthusiasm was infectious, one felt compelled to do one's very best and hopefully please him. He taught much on the appreciation of Art, his liking for the Impressionists and dislike of any artist whose work he considered to be 'sentimental'. One project was to write a composition on the painting of our choice;  this was something in which I was going to excel and picked Degas' “The Rehearsal 1877”.   As I saw it the tiniest, almost hidden figure, the ballet master, was the most important with the artist drawing the viewer's eye to it by dressing him in a scarlet shirt – and I noticed the triangular shapes.

“That's very good” the teacher said “where you have used 'fluffiness' to describe the tutus use the word 'texture', otherwise excellent – did you really write it yourself?”

“Yes I did!”

“Sorry – I shouldn't have said that – it's excellent”.

With his dramatic entrances, his sensitive features topped by permanently unruly hair and his gift of sharing his knowledge of and passion for Art, in today's language, Gavin Alston would, without doubt, be described as charismatic.’

Jill’s correspondence has given me fresh impetus to pursue my research on Gavin Alston and to find some recognition for his talent amongst those more famous graduates of GSA of the 1950s. 

With thanks to Jill Bernhardi for this vivid and evocative reminiscence


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