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Monday, 26 October 2015

The theme of the Commedia dell'arte in the work of Gavin Alston

Gavin, Janie, and Tony and Angela Armstrong visit Italy, c. 1958


The Commedia Dell’Arte was an early form of theatre. Originating in Italy in the 16th century it was the theatre of the street, amateur actors who played stock characters improvised on various set themes or scenarios. Characters, including Harlequin, Punchinello, Pierrot and Columbina, were often masked. The Commedia became popular across Europe, with players travelling to different countries and courts. It’s influence on popular culture and in different art forms can be seen from the 17th century to present day; Opera Buffa, the paintings of Watteau and Pietro Longhi, Stravinsky’s Petroushka, and the film Les Enfants du Paradis, to name a few.

Gavin was certainly drawn to the imagery of the Commedia dell’Arte, having seen the film ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ (1945), modern art by artists like Chagall, Picasso etc. and his interest in Italian art. The theme would have appealed to him, with its down-to-earth, at times humorous, improvisations on life, the human condition; the metaphor of people being like actors on the stage of life.

These pen and ink sketches were done in preparation for a proposed mural. In the words of my mother, Janie Alston, Gavin was always looking for a wall to paint. Gavin hoped to paint the mural on the wall of a favourite café in Glasgow, The Station Café. Charlie Zaccherini, owner of the café, was friends with Gavin, and offered him a place to stay in his hometown of Borgo Val di Taro.

In 1958 after completing his teacher training with his sister Janie Alston, Gavin travelled with Anthony Armstrong and his sister Angela, to Italy.

Anthony first met Gavin when he taught at St. Aloysius School. Gavin taught part-time at GSA, on the non-diploma class, and a couple of days a week at St. Aloysius.

I spoke with Anthony recently and he provided me with lots of anecdotal information about his friendship with my uncle.

Anthony told me what an excellent teacher he was and that he learnt more about drawing from Gavin than he had learnt in the duration of his time at Glasgow School of Art.

‘He could be irascible, if a student was uninterested or doing something he shouldn’t in class, then Gavin would ignore them’.

During his time at Teacher training college at Jordanhill, Gavin was apparently dragged before the principal and told that he wouldn’t pass, to which Gavin replied that if he did not ‘there would be hell to pay!’ .  Gavin passed.


In the summer of 1958, Gavin and Anthony along with their sisters,  Janie and Angela, drove through England and France to Italy in Anthony's old Austin, stopping in youth hostels. They spent a night sleeping on the beach in Marseille, eating biscuits that tasted of oil because they had been stored near a can of petrol.

They visited Florence, meeting up with Gavin’s brother William.

On the 20th of July 1958 coming out of Borgo Val di Taro they had a crash, the wheel came off the car (although it had been serviced the day before).

Coming around the bend of the road, Anthony veered over the precipitous side and the car was only stopped and held in place by a tree. Janie remembers coming to and seeing that a tourist coach had stopped, with all looking out at them. Someone came to help drag them out of the car.

Anthony was taken to Pisa hospital; so severe were his injuries, the steering wheel had gone into his chest, just missing his heart by an inch. Janie and Gavin had minor fractures (broken bones in chest, Janie with a broken a bone in  her foot, bump to head), were taken to Ospedale Sant’Antonio Abate di Pontrmoli. 

Anthony told me that his mother had given him a medal of St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers, to take with him on his tour of Italy, it usually sat on dashboard of the car, but on the day of the crash he had left it in the villa.


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