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Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Glasgow School of Art, circa. 1957.

Musings on my mother's time at Glasgow School of Art in the 1950s.



The above images are from my mother’s own collection of photographs. They show her, Janie Alston, at work in the life room, on a specific piece for her Post-Diploma show and ‘The Sisters’.


After many conversations with my mother about her time at art school I was very excited to come across an early film made by Scottish filmmaker, Eddie McConnell, in the Scottish Screen Archive, entitled ‘The Glasgow School of Art’, 1957. In the blurb on the Scottish Screen Archive website I saw, to my amazement, ‘works by the student Janie Alston [two girls heads together], Stone carving - works by Alan Fletcher and shots of the works exhibited at the degree show’.  It turns out to be footage of my mother’s post-diploma show at GSA.   Although the short film, 15/17 minutes in length, is without sound, it has brought to life my mothers words and provided food for thought.

This Easter my mother and I also made a visit to the Glasgow School of Art Archives and Collections department, spending time looking at the records for the period and talking with the very knowledgeable and informative staff.


McConnell’s film displays artful shots of the iconic Mackintosh designed Glasgow School of Art building; views of the corridors, the main stairwell in the Macintosh building, the library and the 'Hen Run'. Interspersed with these views are close ups of the plaster casts of famous sculptures, like Michelangelo’s portrait of Lorenzo De Medici (from the tomb of Guiliano de Medici), and a bust of Voltaire (Houdon). I think that McConnell ‘tips his hat’ at the founding principles of the art school establishment, the 17th École des Beaux-Arts in Paris,that provided the blueprint for the organization and teaching of art across Europe. A hierarchy of ‘Art’ was taught, with importance laid on the study of Classical and Renaissance masters, working first from classical casts students progressed to study from life, emphasis was placed on the pursuit of realism and the supremacy of the human form.


My mother still remembers drawing and sculpting from casts as preparation for life drawing, including the nose, ears, and eye of David, by Michelangelo! Her drawing tutor, in the first two years of the general course, William Bone, taught what can only be described as the ‘traditional’ and ‘academic’ foundations of Art. There was no drawing from life until the second year. Looking at exemplars from the History of Art, drawings by Slade luminaries like Randolph Schwabe (Painting tutor and later Director of GSA, Jefferson Barnes was married to Schwabe’s daughter), examples by ex-students work, pupils were encouraged to get to grips with ‘composition’, draw ‘form’, use ‘tone’, ‘texture’, consider ‘proportions’ and understand the system of  ‘perspective’.  For example, she sites looking at the work of Whistler and discussing how he filled the space, stressing that the negative space was as important as the positive. Tone, she tells me, was taught as being important in unifying a composition and examples by Renoir and Degas were discussed with regards to composition, drawing and colour. In the first year students had to complete a monthly composition. William Bone, she enthused to me, was an exceptional tutor who could ‘bring even the poorest of students on’.


The Glasgow School of Art must surely have been an electrifying experience for a very young student (she was only 16 at the time she began), who came from Kirkintilloch, a small town on the outskirts of Glasgow. She and her brothers were the first of their family to attend Higher Education. Glasgow had been an industrial powerhouse in the 19th century and was still an important city of commerce and manufacture in post-war Britain, particularly with the ship building on the Clyde. The city was a smoggy, gritty, industrial place as illustrated in photographs like ‘The Gorbals Boys’. Various industrialists and academics had become important philanthropists who had bequeathed substantial art collections to Glasgow at one time or another, e.g. William Burrell and Dr. William Hunter. For the general population of Glasgow, post-war, trips to the Kelvingrove Gallery would have given them access to culture, but Art as a career path or avenue of study was still a novelty. For my mother and her brother, Gavin Alston, the interior world and teaching of Glasgow School of Art must have seemed distinctly new, fresh and perhaps rarefied.



In McConnell’s film different departments are featured. The Sculpture and Drawing and Painting Departments are represented by work (including that of my mothers) that appears very traditional, unsurprisingly. The students in the Painting department are shown painting a figure from life, in an arranged set up. Although not shown in colour, the brushwork and style owes more to the Camden Town group of the early 20th century than the more forward thinking movements of mid century Britain. However, this trait would seem to be as a result of ex-Slade students who were tutors at GSA including Jefferson Barnes and  Geoff Squires and, I suggest, the continuing tradition of the Glasgow Boys. All these artists were inspired by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist philosophies.


 In the sculpture studio one student is shown ‘applying clay’ to a sculptural group of two horses, another student is working on a sculpture of a man swinging a child into the air, modelled in plaster, it pays lip service to Giacometti. A double portrait, in terracotta, of two girls, and a figurative composition, in terracotta, of two women and a child are representative of my mother’s post-diploma show. The work of Alan Fletcher (my mother’s contemporary) strikes a more contemporaneous feel, again the inspiration of Giacometti/Brancusi is evident.

Benno Schotz, the Head of the Sculpture faculty, was an Estonian émigré, who was inspired by the work of another émigré, Jacob Epstein. While traditional in subject matter, Schotz’s work does exhibit ‘expressionist’ tendencies and reminds me of a sculptural equivalent to the work of Oscar Kokoschka. My mother talks of ‘applying clay to find the form’ in comparison to what she perceived as the Edinburgh tradition of ‘taking away’.  She recalled an episode  when some students from Edinburgh accompanied by the Head of Sculpture, Eric Schilsky, came to visit their Glasgow counterparts. ‘Benno told everyone in the sculpture studio to artfully place sculptures and ‘terracottas’ around, but to ‘tell them nothing”, i.e. don’t give away secrets to the enemy!

In the prospectus from 1951 the conditions for the diploma course in Sculpture are given as the following, ‘The work submitted by applicants for a Diploma in Sculpture must include studies from Life cast in plaster, a figure composition,  the diploma group, Drawings from Life, an example of carving in stone or wood, and a thesis.’


In contrast to Fine Art, the work exhibited in the Design departments reveals a more progressive/contemporary feel.  Perhaps with Robert Stewart as Head of the Printed Textiles, who is now recognized as an influential Post-war designer, working for Liberties and Heals at the time, there was greater communication with the Post-war design trends in Britain – ‘his finger was on the pulse’. Kathleen Whyte, in Textiles, was also an important and modernizing figure. The influence of Sadie McLellan, wife of Head of Murals, Walter Prichard, in the Mural Design and Stained Glass department can be witnessed in a fleeting glimpse of a Chagall-like/Medieval figurative stained glass.

Looking through the prospectuses from The Glasgow School of Art from the years 1950 – 1957, it was interesting to note that in the early 50s Printed Textiles, Industrial Design, Mural Design etc. were all grouped together under Design and Crafts, but by the mid 50s each of the Design categories are given their own independent category. Witnessing the rise of applied Art and waning of Fine Art.


Finally the social life of the art school is depicted in the film, showing students, friends of my mother, Una Walsh and Valerie Wilson singing with a band on the front steps of the School of Art. A fancy dress party is shown in full swing, revelers dancing madly, and in full technicolour. It reminds us that, then as now, part of being an art student is the fun you have with your like-minded peers, listening to music, dancing, talking, exchanging ideas and 'the world is new'.


My thanks to Peter Trowles and his team at the Archives and Collections department at Glasgow School of Art for their time and help with our enquiries.



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